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Access to Justice: When life gives you lemons | Beverley McLachlin

Wednesday, May 19, 2021 @ 12:19 PM | By Beverley McLachlin

Beverley McLachlin %>
Beverley McLachlin
Beverley McLachlin delivered this address to the annual Summit of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, May 12, 2021.

Chers amis, dear friends.

It is a great pleasure to speak to you as we close this annual Summit. C’est un grand plaisir de vous adresser la parole cet après-midi.

Let me begin by thanking the Chief Justice for his inspiring remarks, and for his support throughout the past year. Le soutien de notre Président Honoraire est beaucoup apprécié. Merci infiniment, Juge en Chef. Thank you, Chief Justice, for your continuing support of the National Action Committee as it continues to spearhead the cause of access to justice.

The theme of this Summit is “When life gives you lemons.”

The past year has given all of us an abundance of lemons. There is no one who has not been touched — and touched profoundly — by the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. And it’s not over. We are only now beginning to glimpse rays of light at the end of the long tunnel we have been traversing for the past year and three months.

And what we are glimpsing as we search for shards of light is a new and changed world. Will we go back to normal? Yes. Will it be the old normal? Definitely not. Or, more modestly, I hope not.

COVID-19 has changed individuals and changed the world. Old assumptions have been shaken; old norms have been challenged. In the post-pandemic world, we will wash our hands more often, wear masks in flu season and refrain from kissing perfect strangers. We will adopt more flexible models on whether you work in the office or work from home. We will use platforms like Zoom for many of the meetings we used to travel miles to do in person. We will file documents electronically.  

The new world will retain the ground-norms of the old world — people will go to restaurants, attend concerts, and travel. And, yes, they will still go to court to settle their disputes and the issues of law that determine how they build a better future. But they will do all these things in new and revised ways.

We should welcome the opportunity for change that the dislocation we have been living through will present. Painful as the pandemic has been, it has had the prophylactic effect of shaking us up and making us think about how we can do things better. In many cases, given backlogs and desperate need, must do better. And that is good. When life gives you lemons, you adjust and build better.

There are few institutions that will escape the post-pandemic overhaul that awaits us. And among them is the justice system — by which I mean, the attitudes and mechanisms by which our legal system and our country provides justice to the women, men and children who need it.

Today, I want to highlight two differences in the approaches to justice we will see post-pandemic. They are not new in themselves — many people were supporting these new approaches pre-pandemic. But they will gain credence and acceptance, I predict, as we emerge from COVID-19.

The first difference will be a fuller embrace of a people-centred approach to justice. Justice is not just about courthouses and judges and the institutional infrastructure of prisons and enforcement mechanisms. Justice, first and foremost, is about the women and men who need and use the justice system. Rather than defending the status quo because it’s always been there, people-centred justice asks what people need and whether they are able to get it. This is not new — the entire access to justice movement, when you think about it, is based on the idea that people are entitled to the benefit of the justice system. But post-pandemic, we will see broader acceptance of this approach.  

This move to people-centred justice will bring about a new emphasis to build ways for ordinary people to get into — to access — the justice system. British law professor and legal futurist Richard Susskind writes about the need for more front-end structures, ways online and offline for people to connect with justice providers who can help them. He is right.

The move to people-centred justice will also mean a broadening of what we define as justice. The new definition of justice will not merely be whether courts are independent or whether the judge gets it right in this case or that — important as these may be — but whether we are achieving just outcomes, defined in terms of whether the system has helped people resolve their complex and overlapping issues in a positive way. Restorative justice — justice that heals and restores — will be a large part of the new thinking on justice.

The second difference I predict in post-pandemic approaches to justice is an open and energized approach to improving the systems and tools involved in bringing justice to people.

We have learned over the past year and a bit that while much about our justice system is good and should be preserved and enhanced, there is no room for sacred cows — endorsing rules and ways of doing things just because they have always been there. This, I hope, will engender an open and critical evaluation of how we can give our justice institutions a 21st century update.

And an update is overdue. For too long we have been using 19th and 20th century models to deliver justice. The result has been a justice system that is inaccessible to many, spawning the access to justice movement and inspiring the work of groups like the national Action Committee on Access to Justice. The pandemic has worsened this situation and highlighted the need to modify and adapt and expand the models by which we bring justice to people.

People-centred justice and revamped justice delivery systems — these are two goods that can come of the year of lemons we have been living through. We should welcome the year to come as a year of opportunity to build a better justice system that focuses on the needs of people.

The question is whether we will seize that opportunity. We should not underestimate the fatigue and longing simply to return to what we had before, once pandemic restrictions ease. It takes energy to make changes, and that energy may be in short supply and society emerges from the tunnel of COVID-19, battered and weary.

Our challenge — those of us who care passionately about delivering justice to those who need it — is to find the energy to seize the opportunity that the pandemic-induced justice vacuum has created, and make change happen where it is needed.

I hope that when we meet at our next Summit, a year hence, the theme will not be “When life gives you lemons,” but rather “When life gives you opportunities.”

Thank you for attending the Summit, and good luck as you pursue your endeavours in justice.

Merci beaucoup, et bonne chance dans vos travaux pour un meilleur system de justice.

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin served as chief justice of Canada from 2000 to mid-December 2017. She now works as an arbitrator and mediator in Canada and internationally and also sits as a justice of Singapore’s International Commercial Court and the Hong Kong Final Court of Appeal. She chairs the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters.