Open Access

The rich have money. The poor have legal aid. Everyone else has an access-to-justice problem. The Faculty of Law is about to change that.

This page is an excerpt from the article first published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Nexus. See below for a link to a PDF of the entire article.

Access to Justice InitiativeWe have a problem, thought Prof. Michael Trebilcock after completing his Report of the Legal Aid Review in 2008 for Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General.

The report highlighted several key findings, supported by empirical data collected from 1996-2006: the pool of people Legal Aid is able to serve is shrinking, given its restrictive financial eligibility requirements, and government support for the system is declining in real dollar terms (down almost 10 per cent in the same period). For Trebilcock, the data also illuminated a political economy argument that could no longer be ignored.

"The middle class simply isn't invested in Legal Aid the way they are in other politicized issues, such as health care and education." As a result, it was going to be difficult to get the electorate to support any argument for increased funding for Legal Aid, since the system is effectively closed to the average Canadian.

At the law school, the gap in legal services for the middle class is increasingly apparent. "We constantly get people coming to our library, asking our librarians for help with a case and with legal research," says Prof. Mayo Moran, SJD 1999, dean of the Faculty of Law. "And as dean, I get many phone calls and emails from people who are desperate for help."

It was no surprise then when Trebilcock approached her about the growing access-to-justice issue. What was novel, however, was the tactical approach he proposed: engaging the middle class. The idea got the faculty talking.

"I've been involved in access-to-justice issues in one form or another at different points in my career for years, and to me, this was one of the best strategic ideas that I had heard," says McCormack. "Essentially we need a whole segment of society to get on board, and get willing politicians to start putting this in its proper perspective."

Where and how to begin was another issue, says Moran. "Everyone knows there's a problem but figuring out what we do to respond to it is not easy. And the sense that 'We've seen this movie before' is frustrating for people."

The "sequel" is now in production.

The dean made the issue a research and public interest priority for the Faculty of Law. Working and advisory groups were pulled together to map out a multi-pronged initiative to address the growing problem of low and middle-income access to the civil legal justice system in Ontario.

The first phase is an upper-year research seminar, which earlier this year brought together a talented and motivated group of law students and faculty to study best practices from around the world, including adjudicative alternatives.

Next, focus groups are in the works with senior members of the bar, bench and the academy in high-needs areas such as family, employment, consumer and debtor/creditor law to elicit and refine ideas for new and, more importantly, practical solutions. These will be laid out in a policy paper.

And to cap it off, an international conference at the Faculty of Law- and subsequent book publication of essays with a leading academic publisher-is confirmed for February 2011 with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as the keynote speaker.

It's an ambitious initiative with a specific objective: to impact public policy, improve access for those sandwiched in between incomelevel extremes, and foster a trickle-down effect to galvanize support for Legal Aid, helping those who need it most.

The hope, says Moran, is also to produce an innovative delivery model at the Faculty of Law addressing-and filling in-the gaps in the system, where law students, faculty supervisors and volunteers from the legal profession can be involved in a pilot project. "We have a rich source of support for this initiative here, and it will be exciting to see it unfold. One possibility is a clinical type model to give people some assistance, more than just providing information, but something less than going to court. That's what most people need- something in the middle."