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Nova Scotia launches revamped, expanded law reform institute

Tuesday, March 05, 2019 @ 12:49 PM | By Donalee Moulton


Last year, the Nova Scotia government quietly shuttered the doors of the province’s law reform commission after nearly three decades. This year rising from those legal ashes is the Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia. It will mirror its predecessor and stand apart.

“Like other law reform commissions, we are taking the access to justice issue seriously. We are trying to figure out how to fundamentally transform the [work] of this 28-year-old commission,” said Ilana Luther, the institute’s executive director.

Ilana_Luther

Ilana Luther, Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia

The seeds for the new institute, which held its official grand opening in January, were sown in 2017 when the law reform commission made a presentation to the Access to Justice Coordinating Committee (A2JCC). In its final report, released Jan. 16, 2019, the committee noted that the institute “will serve as a centre for co-ordination and research on access to justice and as a central repository for information on access to justice research, data and activity.”

As did its forerunner, the new institute, located at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie, will study existing laws and review their appropriateness. Reports and recommendations will then be presented to the Nova Scotia minister of justice. The institute, for example, is getting ready to release a discussion paper on the province’s Intestate Succession Act. “The act has not been amended since 1975,” noted Luther.

Distinguishing the new institute from the law reform commission is an additional mandate: access to justice. In this role, the institute will continue to oversee and enhance the #TalkJustice project, a social engagement initiative of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society and the Access to Justice Coordinating Committee. It’s intended to hear from Nova Scotians touched by the justice system and use that feedback to inform and infuse new and ongoing projects, programs and processes as well as the law itself.

#TalkJustice achieves several important goals. It provides the institute and the government with timely and important feedback. It engages the public and gives voice to often marginalized and vulnerable populations. The current focus, for example, is on people in rural communities.

“The research shows us where things are working in the justice system and where they are not,” noted Luther.

“We’re seeing a lot of disengagement with the justice system,” she added. “We’re seeing punitive interactions with the justice system.”

Although the work of the Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia can be evenly divided between its two mandates, that line is decidedly grey. “The two sides inform each other,” stressed Luther. “It is an iterative process. We believe this will transform law reform in this province.”

That was the intention. In its final report, the A2JCC stated that, “The institute will continue to promote access to justice as integral to law reform and the promotion of responsive, just and effective law and policy in Nova Scotia, but it will also work towards preventing the legal problems that marginalized populations face every day in this province.”

The interconnections between the institute’s two imperatives were evident, for example, during public consultations on the intestate laws in Nova Scotia. People indicated they wanted a simplified probate procedure. As a result, a new chapter was added to the discussion paper addressing this specific concern.

Feedback from the #TalkJustice project will also be used to help identify other legal issues for review. The institute is also in the early stages of what it is calling the Access to Justice Review Project. Working groups will be established and an issue paper prepared using secondary social science, legal research and qualitative data from #TalkJustice. Recommendations will then be made on how the institute should move forward on access to justice in specified focus areas.

It is not only the work of the Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia that will differentiate it from its predecessor. So will its structure. The commission used to be a statutory body, noted Luther, while the institute is a non-profit corporation. “We are moving out from under the Law Reform Commission Act.”

The board of directors will no longer be appointed by government. Instead, individuals will be members of the board with their own vote. “That opens the way for more participation by the public and more direct participation by service providers,” said Luther.

Committee’s work now done by institute

The four-year mandate of the A2JCC has now come to an end. Its work, however, will continue. The establishment of the Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute will serve as a justice hub and co-ordinate projects encompassing both traditional law reform and access to justice issues.

The goal of the committee was both specific and broad: find ways to make the province’s family, civil and criminal court systems more efficient and effective, less costly, and easier to navigate.

Jennifer Stairs

Jennifer Stairs, communications director with the Nova Scotia judiciary

“The A2JCC was expected to co-ordinate the good work already being done to improve access to justice and identify and address gaps in service through meaningful public engagement,” said Jennifer Stairs, communications director with the Nova Scotia judiciary in Halifax.

The need was, and remains, significant. In its final report issued Jan. 16, the committee noted that a 2013 review of family law case files in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia (Family Division) found that approximately 54 per cent of applicants and as many as 85 per cent of respondents did not have a lawyer when the notice of application in their family law matter was filed.

To help ensure access to justice at a fundamental level, the A2JCC helped to open free legal clinics at courthouses throughout the province. Clinics are operating in four centres and work is under way to open clinics in two additional communities later this year. “This initiative was meant to fill a gap in services for people needing assistance with their civil law matters and family law appeals, excluding child protection,” said Stairs. This model relies on volunteer lawyers and law students to provide support and free legal advice.

Since the first clinic launched in Halifax in 2015, almost 350 visits have been documented.