Access to Justice: A law student’s view on why it matters | Payton Wood
Wednesday, October 16, 2019 @ 9:07 AM | By Payton Wood
The Canadian Bar Association recently reported in its national engagement campaign for the federal election that nearly 49 per cent of Canadians — almost half the population — will encounter a legal problem in a three-year period. Access to justice initiatives work to ensure that the law is accessible regardless of your occupation, economic status or background.
Today, access to justice is at the forefront of discussion in the legal community as we grapple with supporting the most vulnerable members of Canadian society amid tightening budgets and shifting priorities.
Law schools across Canada strive to highlight access to justice as a complex and multifaceted issue in an attempt to educate those entering the profession on their ethical responsibilities. Law schools provide students with meaningful experiences that encourage long-term involvement in access to justice initiatives ranging from pro bono opportunities in local communities to clinical placements in legal aid.
The Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University opened its doors to the Access to Justice and Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia, allowing law students to see first-hand the work of legal professionals on the issue of access to justice in Nova Scotia.
Osgoode Hall Law School at York University has implemented the Osgoode Public Interest Requirement (OPIR) which requires JD candidates to complete 40 hours of unpaid legal work in the public interest before graduation.
Although the initiatives at law schools are admirable, they only go so far in addressing a much bigger issue; namely, that a nationwide infrastructure for access to justice is either faulty or entirely lacking, rendering it difficult to enact meaningful and long-term measures.
The problems with access to justice are largely systemic, stemming from the core issue of underfunding. Legal aid is an important part of access to justice, ensuring all Canadians have access to legal representation.
The federal Department of Justice’s legal aid program provides funding to provinces through contribution agreements for criminal legal aid and to territories through consolidated Access to Justice service agreements. The funding provided is minimal and has been steadily declining since the mid-1990s, only stabilizing in recent years.
This has never been a partisan issue; the consistent decrease in legal aid funding demonstrates this. Sitting governments from both sides of the floor have, for decades, prioritized other issues over adequate and stable funding for legal aid.
So how does this create a barrier for legal professionals?
Without sustainable funding, legal aid initiatives can be added and removed at whim whenever a new government takes power. Positions for staff lawyers are scarce, with the majority of the work of legal aid being taken on by private practitioners. Many of my colleagues in law school revel at the opportunity to work as a staff lawyer for legal aid, but the reality of the situation is that chronic underfunding prevents stable long-term positions akin to those frequently offered by private firms.
Access to justice and funding for legal aid is a complex issue without an easy fix. Governments need to work toward a sustainable funding model that ensures Canadians will have adequate access to initiatives regardless of federal politics.
Establishing a sustainable funding model will also encourage early-career lawyers to continue those initiatives that have proven successful in law schools, but which too often fail to translate into a professional setting outside of the academic crucible.
What does this mean for the upcoming federal election?
If you care about equal access guaranteed by the Charter, seriously considering the party platforms on access to justice is vital. Look to past budgets and consider which policy initiatives are in place to support the infrastructure needed for a successful — and sustainable — system. As lawyers (and soon-to-be lawyers) we are all responsible, and we all need to accept accountability.
The first step? Voting on Oct. 21.
Payton Wood is a second year law student at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
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