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Pro bono: It’s in you to give | Brett Harrison

Monday, March 25, 2019 @ 8:57 AM | By Brett Harrison

Brett Harrison %>
Brett Harrison
It is hardly news that access to justice is in crisis. The courts, lawyers and legal institutions seem to be stretched to capacity, with no easy solutions. Of course, in order to find solutions, we need to understand the problem.

One of the many issues facing the judicial system is the growing number of unrepresented litigants caused by the cost of legal representation. As stated in the National Self-Represented Litigants Project Report, the number of unrepresented litigants has skyrocketed to more than 70 percent of lower court civil cases. As a result, our courts are flooded with individuals who have little or no assistance in navigating our byzantine court system. (Who but a lawyer would know what a statement of claim or affidavit of documents is?) This is taxing on both the litigants, and the judges and court staff that are seeking to assist them.
There have been many changes to the court system which have increased accessibility for unrepresented litigants, such as simplifying procedural rules and increasing the use of technology, but there is a long way to go. Until there are much broader changes the most obvious solution to this part of the problem is to provide needy litigants with pro bono assistance so they can litigate effectively and efficiently.

While it is easy to say that lawyers should be providing pro bono services, it is actually much harder to do in practice. Often the administration and management of pro bono projects make them unmanageable given all of the other pressures faced by lawyers. Luckily for us, there are organizations such as Pro Bono Ontario, Pro Bono Alberta and B.C.’s Access Pro Bono that have been established to provide lawyers with easy access to the vast need for pro bono services. In 2018 volunteer lawyers at Pro Bono Ontario alone assisted almost 30,000 clients who desperately needed help in accessing the courts. That need will only grow in the future.

These organizations cannot exist without lawyers to provide the services, but they also need long term sustainable funding. Given that a recent study established that pro bono law services for unrepresented people in the civil courts save the government $10 for every dollar invested in the program you would expect the government to provide that funding, but it has not, and is unlikely to do so in the future. When Pro Bono Law Ontario had a funding crisis, a number of firms, including my firm and the Toronto Lawyers Association, stepped up and provided one-time donations to keep the doors open. But that is not a feasible long-term solution.

Given the benefits to the profession of an efficient justice system, and our unique place in that system, it is up to lawyers to plug in the gaps and guarantee that these organizations have the funding, and lawyer volunteers, necessary to ensure access to justice for the communities in which we live. Lawyers, through our law societies, need to step up and make sure that there are robust pro bono programs in place to address the existing crisis in access to justice. That means both assisting lawyers to volunteer and providing long term sustainable funding to pro bono service providers.

Consider this: Only 1 in 500 Canadians are lawyers. This means lawyers are rarer than any blood type and we are the ones with the key that opens the door to the entire justice system. To borrow from the good folks at Canadian Blood Services; It’s in you to give. Give your time, give your skills, give your financial support — and you will give our communities access to justice.

Brett Harrison is co-chair of McMillan LLP’s Insolvency Litigation Group and National Marketing partner for the Advocacy and Employment Group. He is also the Pro Bono partner for McMillan's Toronto office and treasurer of the Toronto Lawyers Association.
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