Canadian ATJ Report is a Model for the World

The Canadian Action Committee on Access to Civil and Family Justice, has issued its Report, Access to Civil and Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change.  (It was issued on October, and I am long overdue in my report on a very important document — my apologies.)  The Committee is chaired by a Justice of the Supreme Court, Thomas Cromwell, and was established at the urging of Canada’s wonderful Chief.  I list some of the members at the end of this blog.

I must emphasize at the beginning of this blog that no summary or extracts can do justice to its comprehensiveness.  I urge you to look in the table of contents for the areas in which you have most interest, and look for the specific language. I promise that you will find most if not all of them there — it is that complete.

While the Report brings together into one overall action plan directions that lead from the conclusions of the four working groups about which I have previously blogged, it goes way beyond those conclusions in its intellectual grasp, its ambition, its comprehensiveness, and the force for the future it represents.

For example the first substantive section of the Report puts the access issue in a broad context, pointing out that what matters for most people are “everyday legal problems,” that the “poor and vulnerable are particularly prone to legal problems,” that “problems multiply” and that “legal problems have social and economic costs.”  (There are short but forceful explanations of these points.)

Similarly, the second substantive section of the Report now recommends the following principles to guide change.

  1. Put the public first
  2. Collaborate and coordinate
  3. Prevent and educate
  4. Simplify, make coherent, proportional and sustainable
  5. Take action
  6. Focus on outcomes

 You may well say “of course we put the public first,” but the fact is that all too often institutions put themselves first.  As the Report explains:  “We need to change our primary focus. Too often, we focus inward on how the system operates from the point of view of those who work in it. For example, court processes — language, location, operating times, administrative systems, paper and filing requirements, etc. — typically make sense and work for lawyers, judges and court staff. They often do not make sense or do not work for litigants.

The remaining sections cover the following (pasted from a summary document provided to me):

A. Innovation goals

  1. Refocus the justice system to reflect and address everyday legal problems
  2. Make essential legal services available to everyone
  3. Make courts and tribunals fully accessible multi-service centres for public dispute resolution
  4. Make coordinated and appropriate multidisciplinary family services easily accessible

B. Institutional and structural goals

  1. Create local and national access to justice implementation mechanisms
  2. Promote a sustainable, accessible and integrated justice agenda through legal education
  3. Enhance the innovation capacity of the civil and family justice system

C. Research and funding goals

  1. Support access to justice research to promote evidence-based policy making
  2. Promote coherent, integrated and sustained funding strategies

Here for example is the key text relating to simplification:

4. Simplify, Make Coherent, Proportional and Sustainable
We must work to make things simple, coherent, proportional and sustainable.
One aspect of this task, building on the “public first” principle set out above, is the public’s
understanding of the system. The Canadian Bar Association acknowledged the
system’s complexity in its 1996 Systems of Civil Justice Task Force Report
“Many aspects of the civil justice system are difficult to understand for those
untrained in the law. Without assistance it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access
to a system one does not comprehend. Barriers to understanding include:
• unavailability and inaccessibility of legal information;
• complexity of the law, its vocabulary, procedures and institutions; and
• linguistic, cultural and communication barriers.”
In spite of recent efforts, the civil and family justice system is still too complicated
and largely incomprehensible to all but those with legal training. As one participant
in a recent access to justice survey of the public put it, we need to “make the whole
thing much less complex.”
Similarly, in a recent study of self-represented litigants,
respondents regularly indicated feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the
system. One respondent indicated that the “procedure as I read it sounded easy …
but it was anything but.”
Another indicated that, as a result of the system’s many
procedural steps, “I was eaten alive.”
Our current formal procedures seem to grow ever more complicated and
disproportionate to the needs of the litigants and the matters involved. Everyday legal
problems need everyday solutions that are timely, fair and cost-effective. Procedures
must be simple and proportional for the entire system to be sustainable. To improve
the system, we need a new way of thinking that concentrates on simplicity, coherence,
proportionality and sustainability at every stage of the process.

The report recommends local Access to Justice Implementation Committees, and thinks of them broadly:

The membership of AJICs should be broadly based, with judicial and court administration participation, combined with multi-stakeholder collaboration, through top down and bottom up coherent, collaborative and consultative approaches. The public – through various representative organizations – should play a central role.

The kinds of individuals and organizations that should be part of these committees include the member organizations of the Action Committee, as well as other relevant stakeholder groups and individuals.

Members from the justice sector must be directly linked at a leadership level with their organizations and must commit for a minimum of three years. In addition to volunteer individual members, AJICs need to have administrative staff and support. The modest support needed for AJICs should come from stakeholders. The AJICs must consist of leaders who are champions of change who will form strong guiding coalitions for change.

 There are innovative and efficient ways of bringing these sorts of mechanismstogether. Local centres, in-person meetings, electronic and distance participation, and other accessible methods – including the use of social media, streaming, blogging, and other broad-based and participatory tools – should be considered. These tools should also allow for meaningful public engagement and feedback where possible.

 I fear that only a few of our Commissions could be said to meet these standards.  Similarly there is a call for a National Access to Justice Commission.

In addition to the AJICs, a national organization should be established or createdwithin an existing organization or organizations to promote and monitor, on a long-term basis, access to civil and family justice in Canada. Specifically, it will monitor and promote a national access to justice policy framework, best practices and standards,identify and share information, review international developments, potentially conduct and support research on pressing access to justice issues, support “train-the-trainer” programs in the context of AJICs, etc. This organization, which will be critical for continuing the reform agenda following the completion of the Action Committee’s work, will provide a coordinated voice to the access to justice agenda in Canada.

 Halleluiah!  This might give us in the US some pause that such a broad group can sign on to such an ambitious agenda.  Note too that many of the goals above have specific target dates for completion by the end of the next coupe of years.

Note also who is on the task force that produced this report.  It shows how the major stakeholders are on board with this ambitious agenda.

  • The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada (Honourary Chair)
  • The Honourable Mr. Justice Thomas A. Cromwell, Supreme Court of Canada (Chair)
  • Alberta Justice
  • Association of Legal Aid Plans
  • Canadian Association of Provincial Court Judges
  • Canadian Bar Association
  • Canadian Council of Chief Judges
  • Canadian Forum on Civil Justice
  • Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice
  • Canadian Judicial Council
  • Canadian Superior Court Judges Association
  • Canadian Public (represented by Mary Ellen Hodgins)
  • Council of Canadian Law Deans
  • Department of Justice Canada
  • Federation of Law Societies of Canada
  • Heads of Court Administration
  • British Columbia Ministry of Justice
  • Pro Bono Law Ontario
  • Public Legal Education Association of Canada

I will be in Canada next week, and hope to have more to report.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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