Lawyers given lesson on poverty’s root causes at A2J conference

Can Canada create a fair and inclusive justice system while ignoring many of the root causes driving cases to court?

That was a key question at a session of the three-day Envisioning Equal Justice summit in Vancouver last week.

“There is a desire in a cohesive community to work together for a successful justice system which is inclusive and for a collective response that creates an environment for that and leaves no one behind,” said B.C. Provincial Court Chief Justice Thomas Crabtree during the opening session.

He pointed to some B.C. programs and dedicated courts that have started the process of being part of the response by addressing not just the offence but also working towards engaging the community to address the causal link behind factors such as addiction, mental health, and homelessness.

In order to understand the collective response needed, lawyers engaged in a poverty simulation exercise hosted by Heather Block, director of strategic initiatives for the United Way in Winnipeg. Her organization purchased a kit in the fall of 2012 from a Missouri organization, adapted it to reflect the Canadian situation, and created family groups of role players who must deal with the day-to-day issues of work, school, and paying bills.

About 130 lawyers took part in the exercise as they clustered into one, two or no-parent families. Around the meeting room were institutions such as work, school, banks, welfare, child-care centres, food store, clothing store, police stations, pawn shops, employment offices, and legal aid.

Each family had a play scenario such as monthly bills to pay, possessions, and a certain amount of cash on hand or in the bank. The groups play out a month of managing their budget spread over four 15-minute sessions. However, to go to any place but school, they need a transportation pass. Some families didn’t have the passes needed to get to work, go to agencies or stores or simply look for a job.

Early in the exercise, the police started picking up youth who weren’t in school or were wandering about or left at home unsupervised as single parents, unable to afford childcare, had gone off to work. Parents lost time and pay at work as they had to deal with social services to retrieve their children. The jail starts to fill up. Long lines at welfare services, banks, and employment offices appeared.

“The transit ticket started my slide,” said Wayne Robertson, executive director of the Law Foundation of British Columbia, who played the role of a working parent but ran out of transit passes. Following his arrest for robbery, he wonders in jail if his family knows where he is and when they’re going to bail him out. “I’ve got rights, you know,” he said. Finally, the family arrives and pulls out piles of cash for bail.

At the end of the game, a number of families are facing eviction for not paying rent or mortgages. The homeless shelter is filling up. The majority of the families in the hour-long exercise are hanging by a thread financially.

“How many came out of it with more money than they started?” said Block, asking those to stand. More than a dozen groups stand, including Robertson and his family. Robertson isn’t sure how much money he’ll have after his trial date next month.

“If you got ahead doing anything illegal, sit down,” she told those standing.

There was a noticeable shift. Robertson’s group is among them. Only a handful of groups have come out of their mock lives better off.

Block isn’t surprised. The exercise parallels what individuals short of money with pressing financial needs do. “If you are living on the edge, there are not many options and people will try to get around the system,” she said.

Jamie Maclaren, executive director of the Access Pro Bono Society of British Columbia, said the simulation provided only a brief glimpse of what those on low incomes experience. His organization receives requests for assistance from approximately 25,000 people and helps only 8,000. “We turn away a whole slew because they do not qualify,” he said.

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