SASKATOON - All lawyers, including those working in-house and for government, have a duty to improve access to justice.
That’s according to Melina Buckley, chairwoman of the Canadian Bar Association’s access to justice committee, who closed the organization’s annual conference in Saskatoon Tuesday with a challenge to the profession.
“We’re all officers of the court and custodians of the justice system and . . . with that comes responsibility," she said.
Some lawyers, such as those working as corporate counsel or in government, may feel access to justice has little to do with their day-to-day roles, but they still have a “responsibility to in some way commit to helping with access to justice,” she stressed.
She set out five ways in which they can help:
Firstly, they can champion legal aid. “It takes a conversation to get people to understand how important legal aid is,” she said.
The justice system is not seen as a priority by most people, in the same way health and education are, Buckley argued. The report published by her committee on Monday, "Reaching Equal Justice: An invitation to envision and act," highlighted that spending on the justice system, excluding corrections and policing, amounts to just one per cent of the overall government budget.
This is despite the fact studies have shown each $1 spent on legal aid results in savings to the public purse of $6.
Secondly, lawyers can become “justice innovators,” Buckley said.
Thirdly, they can promote “legal health,” for example by encouraging people to have annual “legal health check ups” that would assess any potential legal risks they may be facing.
Fourthly, everyone in the legal profession can pledge to “spread the word,” helping to engage others in the debate.
Lastly, lawyers need to keep themselves informed about access to justice issues, making sure they are asking questions and taking the time to read reports.
She also warned against an over-reliance on pro bono services, which were currently preventing an “emergency situation,” she claimed.
Speaking to Legal Feeds earlier in the week, Buckley said the committee had decided to “really go against the grain” in its stance on pro bono services, limited scope retainers, and assistance to self-represented litigants.
“We don’t think it’s sustainable to build a system like a food bank,” she said. “It’s like admitting the system has failed. We have a problem with it [pro bono] being used to fill the gaps.”
Speaking before yesterday’s speech by Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Buckley said she hoped his recent appointment would bring about a change of direction from the federal government.
“For a long time the message was ‘it’s part of the jurisdiction of the province and the federal government doesn’t have a role.’ Well the federal government has to be involved,” she said.
“I don’t think we’re seeing the attitude change yet,” she added.
As reported on Monday, the access to justice report made a number of demands from the federal government, including more funding for legal aid and national benchmarks on access to justice.
MacKay has said he needs to read the report thoroughly to provide a thoughtful response.