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  • Writer's pictureBridget Lontok

Why is access to justice so important anyways?

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

Canada is a democracy operating under the rule of law. We vote for the people who represent us in the provincial and federal governments. The people who represent us are lawmakers; they make and change the laws. The legal system where the laws are enforced is separate from the lawmakers. The laws are supposed to apply equally to everyone no matter who you are; that is the rule of law.

In order for the rule of law to work the law has to apply equally to everyone. In order for the law to apply equally to everyone, everyone has to have access to justice. Without access to justice the rule of law just doesn't work!

Without access to justice the rule of law just doesn't work!

What is access to justice?

Access to justice is many things.

Access to justice includes procedural fairness and natural justice. If you have been accused of something you need access to information about those allegations so you can defend yourself before an unbiased decision maker. You should have access to the legal representative of your choosing. Whether you have been accused or you are the one doing the accusing, you need access to the courts or tribunals to be heard.

For some people access to justice is an accessible Zoom hearing. For another person, access to justice might mean an in-person hearing to accommodate a disability or lack of technology. (and access to justice is knowing how and being able to make that request for accommodation)

Access to justice can be efficient legal proceedings. Simplifying procedures to make them more accessible, quicker and less complicated increase access to justice. Standardized forms increase access to justice. People don't want to engage the legal system if they know that their matter will drag out for years, bankrupt them and it is too complicated to navigate.

Education about people's rights, obligations and how to enforce those rights and obligations are essential for access to justice. You cannot properly enforce a right that you don't know you have or defend yourself if you don't understand the limitations of those rights and obligations.

The use of plain language increases access to justice. Understanding the procedures and rules in the courts and tribunals is essential to access to justice. Understanding the words and meanings of our laws and the decisions that makeup caselaw is essential to access to justice.

Having information about laws, rules and procedures available to the public is essential to access to justice. In Ontario we have CLEO and Steps to Justice (just to name a couple) that provide the public with information about laws and legal procedures. The National Self Represented Litigant Project has tools and information for people who are representing themselves; they also collect and analyze data on self-represented litigants. CanLII is an online resource that contains commentary on laws and legal decisions, legal decisions, and laws from all over Canada.

Having legal services available to the public is essential to access to justice. It is not enough just to have legal services available; they have to be affordable and flexible in order to be accessible. That means something different to everyone.

Legal Aid Ontario provides limited legal advice and services depending on the type of legal matter that you have and your how much money you make. The Human Rights Legal Support Center offers information and limited legal services for people who may have suffered human rights abuse. These resources are great, but they are simply not enough.

Paralegals increase access to justice by offering legal services within a limited scope. A Paralegal's legal services usually cost a fraction of the legal services provided by a lawyer. Paralegals are trained and competent to represent clients in matters within their limited scope. Paralegals are regulated by the Law Society of Ontario: they must complete a required education, they must complete a field placement, they must pass a licensing exam, and they are bound to rules governing conduct and competency. If you are interested in learning more about what a paralegal can do check out the Law Society's page here.

Access to justice requires flexible legal services. Some people may want to do most of the work themselves and may only want a little bit of help. Some people may not be able to afford full representation but can afford help for bits and pieces of their legal mater. This is why some paralegals and lawyers offer limited scope retainers or unbundled services.

These are just some examples of how access to justice plays a role in our legal system. There are lots of tools and resources that we already have to improve access to justice, but there are also lots of things that we could be doing better. Access to justice is a continuous improvement goal. There are a lot people who don't have access to justice.

My goal is to help increase access to justice one client at a time.

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