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Justice leadership in a pandemic | Maaike de Langen and Trevor Farrow

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 @ 9:46 AM | By Maaike de Langen and Trevor Farrow


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Maaike de Langen
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Trevor Farrow
Hopes that we will swiftly overcome the pandemic may be fading, but the conviction that we need to transform our societies for the better is spreading. Not just the health and economic impacts of the pandemic require recovery, the societal and political consequences call for a profound rethink and — as some are now arguing — a fundamental reset.

The secretary-general of the UN has called for a new social contract. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has underlined the need to lay the foundation for a better world by addressing the problems of the last few decades, not just those of the last few months.

This week, hosted by Justice Canada, over 20 justice ministers from around the world will come together for the first time for a profound reflection on how the justice sector can support people, communities and societies during this global emergency. In this global dialogue, justice leaders will discuss how to transform justice systems so that they can respond to the changing demand for justice in countries around the world.

Notwithstanding good intentions, the reality is that justice systems are not delivering. Even before the pandemic, 5.1 billion people globally did not have meaningful access to justice and at any given time, 1.5 billion people were unable to resolve their justice problems. In Canada people spend just under $8 billion annually on their everyday legal problems — on average about $6,000 per problem — and likely much more. Knock-on costs to the state — health, social and employment assistance, and housing — amount to almost $1 billion, and likely much more.

Too often, justice systems exacerbate inequalities by giving unfair advantage to those with more resources and capabilities. Too often coercive justice responses raise tensions rather than de-escalating conflict. Too often unresponsive systems drive people to despair when they are trying to access public services they are entitled to. Too often confrontational systems and procedures fuel the fire of conflict in the case of a divorce or a disputed inheritance, causing unnecessary harm to relationships.

We need justice systems that focus on resolving and preventing people’s justice problems. Those systems must be informed by data and evidence of what works and incorporate insights into human behaviour and conflict in their procedures and approaches. We need new ways of working and smarter investments in solutions that can be scaled and that deliver fair outcomes. We need collaboration beyond courts and lawyers and shared goals for this transformation. Justice matters to everyone and everyone needs to be reflected in our systems of justice.

Canada is well-placed to host this global dialogue. With strong justice institutions, law schools, legal aid organizations and advocates, and a growing body of access to justice research, innovation and collaboration, there is significant reason for optimism. The formation of the federal government’s Access to Justice Secretariat, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the ongoing work of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters and Canada’s Justice Development Goals are but several examples of important national initiatives. Equally important work is happening across the provinces and territories.

But in Canada, like everywhere in the world, there are urgent questions to be answered and a profound deliberation to be had about the role of justice actors in building more peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Access to justice is a key part of that deliberation.

Justice leaders don’t often come together to work across borders and discuss common challenges. This international collaboration has never been more urgent than now. The Global Dialogue of Justice Leaders is an excellent first step to bring leaders together to help shape the international agenda and pave the way for smarter strategies in their own countries. As the UN secretary general said in that same speech: “The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the world’s fragilities. We can only address them together.”

Maaike de Langen is with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

Trevor Farrow is a professor at
Osgoode Hall Law School and chair of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice.

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