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For a definition, we’ll turn to Jerry McHale, Q.C. When it comes to this topic, he’s considered somewhat of a guru in British Columbia (see his bio here). McHale wrote an entire piece on what A2J means, and how the definition manages to change drastically depending on who you ask. He writes:

There are two primary streams of thought about the meaning of access to justice. The first emphasises the “access” half of the equation and focuses on the availability of resources to help individuals resolve disputes. The second steam emphasises “justice” and argues that the justice we seek consists of more than exposure [i.e. “access”] to dispute resolution services.

In the past, “access” meant ensuring more people in society, particularly the poor, have access to lawyers, judges and the courts. Over time, this definition began to change as alternative forms of dispute resolution were gradually accepted (a.k.a. tribunals, mediation, etc.) and as various other reforms took place in the justice system. Now, according to McHale, “access” is defined more as a “project that employs a diverse range of strategies, programs and processes in the service of resolving disputes.”

The second stream defines A2J more broadly as “the alleviation (if not the elimination) of injustice” in all aspects of society. This includes equal access to legislative decision making and a vast array of other methods of ensuring the root causes of injustice are resolved.

With both these definitions in mind, let’s see how well we’re doing.

As a country, the numbers are in—and they’re not very good. According to the recent Global Insights on Access to Justice report, only about a third (32%) of Canadians who experience a legal problem sought any form of advice to help them better understand or resolve their problem. Less than half (43%) said their problems were fully resolved, and about a third (27%) experienced economic hardship as a result (a.k.a. loss of income, employment, or the need to relocate).

According to a 2013 report on Access to Civil and Family Justice: “There is a serious access to justice problem in Canada. The civil and family justice system is too complex, too slow and too expensive. It is too often incapable of producing just outcomes that are proportional to the problems brought to it or reflective of the needs of the people it is meant to serve.” Canada still has a long way to go.

Organizations like Access to Justice BC, the Access to Justice Research network, and various others try to provide data, but just as the definition of A2J changes person-to-person, the ways to track it are also up for debate.

Access to Justice BC recently hosted a signing ceremony for the Access to Justice Triple Aim which strives to solve this problem and develop a common framework for measuring the province’s success rate. Other justice metrics have been formulated as well.

As a common understanding is developed on what access to justice means and how it can be measured, we hope to see the improvements made across the country; and as usual, we’ll always add our voice to the mix, emphasizing the importance of mediation and other dispute resolution processes as a component of both the “access” and “justice” components of A2J.


Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

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