Rotstein and Regehr: Canada needs an equal, accessible justice system

Why would a single mother working in a minimum wage job get financial help to deal with a child custody problem in one province but not the next?

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An equal, accessible justice system is like a good insurance policy. You don’t want to think about it too often but when you need it, you’re sure glad to have it. But what if you don’t? Or if it’s too slow, or unaffordable? We worry about that, too.

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We represent more than 36,000 members of the Canadian Bar Association, the largest association of lawyers, Québec notaries, law professors and students in the county. Our mandate is to promote improvements in the law and the administration of justice, especially during election campaigns as voters decide who to trust with their rights, their laws, and the administration of justice.

Equal justice is not a luxury. And like insurance policies, it’s not just for other people. Studies show that in any given three-year period, nearly 50 per cent of adults will experience a serious legal issue. Things such as adjusting child support payments to reflect a change in financial circumstances due to the pandemic; employment issues such as wrongful dismissal; updating your will; being unable to make your own decisions due to an incident that leaves you incapacitated; personal injury; bankruptcy; or, in some cases, facing criminal charges.

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If something were to happen to you or a member of your family, you’d want to know you can seek redress in the justice system regardless of financial means. So would we.

We have long advocated for changes in the justice systems to make them more responsive to the needs of everyday people in Canada who seek justice. That means modernizing how courts operate — and on that score we can say that one of the very few positive aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it forced our courts to adopt new practices such as online proceedings in very short order. Changes we didn’t think could happen in a decade took place in a manner of weeks.

And as the CBA said in a report released earlier this year, there is no going back. We need to shift our focus to a comprehensive transformation of the justice systems to ensure equal access to justice, for everyone, in every Canadian province and territory. We have asked the leaders of every party for their commitment on four specific questions, and we will be posting their answers on our website.

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One of the specific measures we are calling for is better and consistent legal aid programs across the country. Right now, eligibility criteria vary between provinces, much more than for other essential public services. Why would a single mother working in a minimum wage job get financial help to deal with a child custody problem in one province but not the next? We want to see the federal government taking a leadership role with the provinces and territories to put in place a national, integrated system of public legal assistance.

Equal justice for everyone, regardless of financial means, can sound like an expensive proposition. But the costs to everyone for not having it are considerable: unresolved legal issues represent hundreds of millions of dollars in additional social assistance payments, employment insurance payments, health care costs and other social services. In fact, cost-benefit research suggests every dollar spent on legal aid saves about $6 on other social services.

Equal, accessible justice for all is an investment worth making, and not just in terms of dollars.

We may not like to think about it too often — like insurance, really — but ensuring everyone in Canada has equal access to justice is fundamental for a healthy and prosperous society where the rights of everyone are protected. We look forward to discussing these issues with each federal party.

Stephen Rotstein is the President of the Canadian Bar Association. Bradley D. Regehr is the immediate past-president of the CBA.

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