1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 148, Issue 161

Wednesday, May 8, 2013
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Envisioning Equal Justice

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, in April I attended the Canadian Bar Association’s Envisioning Equal Justice Summit in Vancouver. The summit was chaired by Dr. Melina Buckley.

Equal justice means that everyone in our society has the same rights and protections under the law; we all have equal access to the justice system.

The summit brought together broad representation from the justice community to learn about and share views on practical means to build equality by increasing access to justice. Participants included lawyers, judges, paralegals, legal aid and pro bono providers, community legal advocates, public legal information specialists, government policy-makers, law foundation board members and staff, members and staff of administrative tribunals, academics and members of public policy organizations.

At its opening plenary, the summit heard from Maria Campbell, a Metis elder, community advocate, activist, professor and filmmaker. She said that when she was six years old, living in an isolated trapping community in northern Saskatchewan, a young RCMP officer bribed her with an Oh Henry! bar to tell him where her father kept his meat. Her father spent six months in jail. The meat intended to feed the community for the winter was confiscated, and she and a pregnant mother were left to snare rabbits in the bush to feed themselves and the rest of her family until her father came home.

At the summit, Ms. Campbell called for a holistic approach to change that involves looking at the challenges people face. She said, “It doesn’t matter how good judges and lawyers are if you don’t have enough money to feed your kids and you have to sleep in your car in winter.”

Throughout the summit, participants were asked to envision equal justice and develop practical strategies, skills and tools for building a more just society through enhanced and effective approaches to resolving legal problems. The summit began with a poverty simulation, followed by two days of inspiring and interactive sessions to address what was described as a growing access-to-justice gap.

Innovators and knowledge leaders from Canada and around the world outlined leading-edge strategies for solutions. The summit heard that the current situation amounts to an access-to- justice crisis, and participants agreed that progress to address that crisis has stalled. Legal aid was described as a social program so tattered and torn that it is unrecognizable. Shortfalls hit the most vulnerable populations hardest, but members of the middle class also find that access to legal help is unavailable and unaffordable and that our courts are swamped with unrepresented litigants.

Dr. Buckley identified four main barriers to equal justice: lack of political profile, inadequate coordination and framework for reform, absence of mechanisms to measure change, and gaps in knowledge about what can improve access to justice. Participants agreed that the next step is to develop a cohesive framework and move forward together in a more coordinated way.

Honourable senators, I hope that we, as senators, can help to lead this equal justice discussion and promote positive change to our justice system so that there is truly access to justice for all in our country.