Talking about access to justice

Precedent attends a book launch at the U of T Faculty of Law

By Diane Peters

On Monday December 3rd, 2012

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“Access to justice” is one of those buzz-phrases that keeps coming up in the profession. Now, defining what those words really mean and how they impact the law is a new book. Middle Income Access to Justice (University of Toronto Press), edited by Michael Trebilcock, Anthony Duggan and Lorne Sossin, is a product of the ongoing Middle Income Access to Civil Justice Initiative, which runs out of U of T.

At the book’s launch on November 21 at the U of T Faculty of Law, a select group of the book’s authors gave some insights into the numerous issues contained in the book. The event was decidedly low-key: in a basement lecture hall at the faculty. No wine and cheese, no glitz at all. An audience of mostly students listened (many took notes) to learn the upshot of the book’s message: while access to justice seems like a niche concern, it in fact has far-reaching implications that impact every aspect of the law.

Nick Bala of Queen’s Faculty of Law talked about the rise of self-representation in family law. He said it’s not only cost concerns that inspire divorcing spouses to avoid lawyers but also their perception that lawyers add complexity to the process. The “Judge Judy phenomenon” slows things down in court and, in the case of divorcing spouses, the spouse that does hire a lawyer ends up paying for her ex to learn about the law in a drawn-out proceeding.

Then consumer expert Tony Duggan of U of T talked about innovations in small claims courts. He spoke of ideas being tested out in Australia that see a two-tiered small claims system that uses a mix of formal and informal proceedings to speed things along and reduce costs for consumers.

Nye Thomas of Legal Aid Ontario spoke about the need for better legal services for low-income Canadians. Namely, the fact that the threshold for qualifying for Legal Aid has not changed since 1995: you have to make less than $10,000 or so a year to quality for full legal representation, putting many Ontarians who live at or below the poverty line without support. He talked about some new innovations in legal aid, such as offering summary legal advice over the phone and the more extreme idea of offering mandatory legal insurance to protect middle- and low-income Canadians from future legal costs.

Also on the agenda: issues in employment law, the emerging role of paralegals, unbundling, active adjudication and more. It was just a taste of the wide-ranging issues that are related to access to justice in this profession. For more, check out the book.