Access to justice leaders from coast to coast to coast met for two and one-half days in Ottawa in April at the annual summit of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. These people know better than most how big a challenge we face in improving access to justice. But that did not temper the enthusiasm for what has been accomplished or weaken the resolve to keep working for change.
Delegates representing the broad coalition that makes up the action committee — deputy ministers, the judiciary, provincial and territorial access to justice groups, legal aid plans, pro bono groups, public legal education providers, the bar, notaries, ADR professionals, administrative tribunals and the public — heard of the success of the action committee’s public engagement initiative and its innovation tool box project. Thousands of people engaged with the need for an effective civil and family justice system and people across Canada active in justice innovation developed communities of practice and other tools to help them with their important work. Sarah McCoubrey and Meredith Brown, access to justice strategists with Calibrate, designed and executed both projects, which were funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario.
The group also was given an update on progress on the action committee’s Justice Development Goals. Sixty-eight new initiatives to help people address everyday legal problems; 64 new initiatives designed to better meet legal needs, including eight new pro bono services; 50 projects aimed at improving family justice. And the list goes on.
One of the challenges facing reformers is the dearth of empirical evidence about how our civil and family justice system works and how to know if our reforms are having the intended effect. The improvement in justice metrics is a critical element of any long-term plan for systemic change. People at the summit learned of a project spearheaded by Jerry McHale which is bringing together a strong coalition to work on this topic. Bringing to together researchers at the faculties of law at the University of Victoria, University of Saskatchewan, York University and University of Montreal, the initiative’s goal is to develop priorities for justice system metrics and to build capacity for data gathering and analysis. And feeding into that effort was the work at the summit to begin to develop indicators; that is, things we can measure, in relation to each of the Justice Development Goals.
A full day of the summit was devoted to the issue of Indigenous child welfare. Organized by Scott Robertson of the Indigenous Bar Association and Mark Benton of the Legal Services Society of B.C., distinguished speakers from across Canada led us through an intense and impactful overview of the woeful state of services for Indigenous children and families in many parts of our country. While not usually discussed as an access to justice issue, the presentations at the summit showed that it certainly is. The child welfare system almost everywhere in Canada is not meeting the needs of children, families or communities. The speakers at the summit helped participants not only to better understand the problem, but also to hear about promising solutions. Better funding, more community leadership, more culturally appropriate options and a wider focus on the whole family were some of the aspects discussed.
To cap the summit, Beverley McLachlin, recently retired as chief justice of Canada, confirmed that she has agreed to assume the chair of the action committee this autumn. Her successor as chief justice, Richard Wagner, confirmed that he has accepted to take on the role of honourary chair of the action committee, following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Stay tuned!
All of us concerned about access to justice will not be satisfied until there is a great deal more improvement. But this gathering of leaders demonstrated that there is a growing commitment to make the necessary change and an impressive array of innovative projects showing that making that change is possible.
This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily on June 20, 2018. It is the eighth 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.