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Legal helping hand needed in uncertain times | Meena Ansari

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 @ 2:07 PM | By Meena Ansari

Meena Ansari %>
Meena Ansari
At the top of my law school application, I wrote out the hope of who I wanted to be: “A strong voice for those who have been overlooked by Canadian society.”

Once accepted into the ivoried halls of the law academy, I realized just how far justice was from those who needed it most.

In class, I learned that over half of litigants in Ontario family courts show up without lawyers. These are people negotiating custody arrangements with angry exes, struggling with complicated divorces and fighting for child support.

For most of these self-represented people, cost is the primary barrier. For the average middle-class Canadian facing litigation, “Their options are grim: use up the family assets … become their own lawyer, or give up,” says former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Beverley McLachlin.

While most Canadians cannot afford $300 per hour for a lawyer, they also do not qualify for legal aid. “Legal aid only helps the very, very poorest people ... in Ontario, the eligibility level is actually set below the level of welfare,” explained Julie Macfarlane, law professor at the University of Windsor.

For these unrepresented court participants, the chances of a successful result are slim. According to a 2012 survey of Canadian judges conducted by Rachel Birnbaum, Nicholas Bala and Lorne Bertrand:

  • 46% reported that self-represented litigants have poorer outcomes in child custody disputes; and
  • 65% felt that self-represented litigants fare worse in dividing marital property and support.

How just is our justice system when the arbitrators perceive an inequality of arms?

After all, judges cannot reshape a system that was made for legally trained professionals to accommodate laypersons. And laypersons simply are not prepared for the number of administrative steps involved in a legal matter.

“What’s challenging for people representing themselves … [is] the procedure,” explained Macfarlane, who founded the National Self-Represented Litigants Project. Self-represented people are baffled to discover that complaints filed past strict deadlines are rejected, court documents filed in the wrong font must be resubmitted and improperly served documents are inadmissible. When bombarded with the minutiae of litigation, lay folks quickly realize that justice is impossible without a lawyer.

These days, the access to justice crisis is spiralling out of control. As the pandemic continues to claim lives, more and more Canadians are embroiled in legal disputes. Families face divorces from living in close quarters, bankruptcies due to shuttered businesses and reneged leases from insolvent contractors.

Meanwhile, Canadian law students are facing a dilemma of a different kind. The usually abundant summer opportunities have dried up. Employers can no longer pay full-time staff, much less invest in the next generation of legal minds.

Seeing the growing access to justice tragedy and masses of unemployed law students, Alex Don had an idea. The Ontario-based lawyer decided to launch the not-for-profit organization National Canadian Lawyers’ Initiative, which pairs law students with experienced lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to Canadians in need.

Learning about the declining state of access to justice, I decided to volunteer with the organization. I feel energized connecting with lawyers who are passionate about serving others. And fulfilled knowing that I’m helping folks who cannot afford to pay for legal services.

So, if you’re a law student out of an internship or a lawyer with a sparse calendar, don’t despair. We are everyday heroes. And we will stand with our neighbours through their darkest days.

Meena Ansari is a recent graduate of the University of Victoria School of Law. As a student, she volunteered with National Canadian Lawyers’ Initiative, Pro bono Students Canada and the JURIST online legal newspaper. Meena loves hiking, hates competitive board game players and never irons her shirts.

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