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Where to go now?

Last month, the Access Pro Bono Society of B.C. organized Pro Bono Going Public, a free legal advice-a-thon with volunteer lawyers doling out legal advice in several local parks to those unable to afford legal services. The now-annual B.C. event is one of many pro bono activities running across the country. Pro bono legal work has become widespread, from Big Law to law school, and it’s a great way for lawyers to give back as well as get the chance to practise types of law they may not otherwise be involved in. All of this is good.

But the root causes of this growing need for pro bono legal services is, simply, not good. Access to justice in Canada is becoming harder and harder for the average Canadian. In every area of the law from civil, to criminal, to family justice, access to justice is waning. And there are many culprits.

Money is a big one, recently reiterated in the series of reports on the justice system in B.C. And it’s not just in terms of the court system but also funding for legal aid. Governments will say legal aid dollars have gone up but it nowhere near matches the increase in demand. Jamie Maclaren, a Vancouver lawyer and executive director of the Access Pro Bono Society of British Columbia, told our Legal Feeds blog after the release of the reports that even those reports’ recommendations don’t go nearly far enough to increase the incentive for private lawyers to take on legal aid cases. “The most striking aspect of the report to me was the description of how our legal aid tariff rate has declined by 27 per cent since 1991, and how the number of practising lawyers taking legal aid referrals has nearly halved in the past decade,” said Maclaren.

While money is part of it, there’s more to it than that. Lawyer Geoffrey Cowper who led the B.C. justice review called out a “culture of delay” as the prime suspect plaguing the system and creating court backlogs. “The culture of delay in the court system is resistant to change because there are several benefits to those working within the system that are gained from delay and no accepted means of enforcing timeliness as a priority. To change this culture we must fundamentally change the incentives that apply to the parties and provide the right tools to the right participants to make timeliness a necessity and not an option,” he wrote in his 277-page August report.

So where to go from here? At Ontario’s opening of the courts last month, Chief Justice Warren Winkler expressed dismay at the slow pace of extending the family court system, noting: “If we cannot move ahead rapidly with the extension of the Unified Family Court, we need to explore other means to simplify court procedures, shorten timelines, and increase judicial specialization for family law within the existing court structure. These improvements will increase access to justice in our area of greatest need.”

Margaret Waddell, a Toronto litigator who pens our online Trials and Tribulations column, offers four ways for improving the court system:

1. Hire more clerks for the judges.

2. Create an online reservation system for motion scheduling.

3. Abolish automatic dismissals.

4. Establish a province-wide online database of current court cases.

What are your suggestions for making the system better?