by Thomas Cromwell
West Coast LEAF is a legal advocacy group whose mandate is to use the law to create an equal and just society for all women and people who experience gender-based discrimination. In other words, it is an organization dedicated to access to justice writ large. I was able to speak to Zahra Jimale, West Coast LEAF’s Director of Law Reform about its work, her conception of access to justice and, most importantly, how successful we’ve been in improving access to justice on the ground. Here is what she told me.
TC: Tell me about your role at West Coast Leaf
ZJ: In collaboration with the community, West Coast LEAF uses litigation, law reform, and public legal education to make change. We do our work in six focus areas: access to healthcare; access to justice; economic security; freedom from gender-based violence; justice for those who are criminalized; and the right to parent. As the Director of Law Reform, I provide leadership, strategic planning and project management with respect to policy and law reform in all of the six focus areas. I work with our team to develop the organization’s position statements and recommendations on implementation and reform of policy and law. I bring to this role my experience of founding and operating an independent family law practice where I provided a variety of family law services, including unbundled legal services, legal coaching, collaborative divorce, and mediation.
TC: What do you perceive as the biggest access to justice gap?
ZJ: There is a significant gap between what the public expects of the justice system and what the justice system delivers and is currently capable of delivering.
There is lack of deeper understanding of what it means to truly access justice; that justice is not simply achieved by accessing, but by obtaining just outcomes in an efficient and cost effective manner, regardless of the type of dispute resolution process that is pursued, be it court or alternative dispute resolution processes; that meaningful access to justice requires recognizing and dismantling the various barriers faced by many, and in particular, that there are intersecting barriers faced by certain populations because of historical and/or current systemic challenges. The complexity of the system, long delays, lack of access to affordable and timely legal advice and representation, and lack of adequately funded legal aid system continue to widen the gap.
An urgent systemic change is required to reduce these barriers and an immediate action must be taken to address the growing access to justice crisis, especially in family law. Where individuals are unable to access lawyers due to prohibitive costs and lack of public service, they are left with no choice but to either forego rights and interests, including the protection of their children’s rights and interests, or represent themselves without appropriate legal advice and/or representation. This is why West Coast LEAF and a team of pro bono counsel is representing the Single Mothers’ Alliance and an individual plaintiff in an ongoing constitutional claim against the B.C. government and the Legal Services Society for failing to provide adequate family law services, in particular to women fleeing violent relationships.
TC: There is a lot of talk about the access to justice problem, but do you see signs of improvement on the ground?
ZJ: Unfortunately, we are far from seeing meaningful access to justice. Although there has been a lot of talk and some action, particularly in diverting disputants away from the court system and litigation generally, the justice system remains inaccessible to those that need it most. The barriers to accessing justice and the significant adverse consequences, including safety concerns for those fleeing violent relationships, are ongoing. Even though nearly half of Canadians over the age of 18 experience at least one civil or family law problem over any given three-year period, justice system funding continues to be woefully inadequate.
TC: If you could do any one thing to improve access to justice, what would you do and why?
ZJ: I would change the way we perceive access to justice. I believe once we recognize access to justice as a human right that is fundamental to the protection and promotion of the rule of law, we will then be forced to take the necessary action to ensure that it is meaningful and protected. This includes increasing the public’s knowledge of the justice system and how to manage and resolve legal problems; making available cost effective and appropriate avenues for resolution; providing meaningful access to resources and services; ensuring adequate funding of legal aid; and maintaining appropriate judicial complements and effectively functioning courts.
This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily on August 13, 2018. It is the eleventh article in The Honourable Thomas Cromwell’s exclusive Lawyer’s Daily column dedicated to access to civil and family justice.
The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now senior counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.