Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chief Justice doesn’t hold back in her keynote address at the Faculty of Law’s Access to Civil Justice for Middle Income Canadians Colloquium

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo

 Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin speaks at the
Access to Civil Justice for Middle Income Canadians Colloquium
(See the end of this article for a link to the webcast of her speech)

(Feb. 14, 2011) It’s not often that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada speaks out on an issue—and when she does, people listen. More than 100 legal experts did recently at the University of Toronto, as part of the Access to Civil Justice for Middle Income Canadians Colloquium, hosted by the Faculty of Law Feb. 10-11, 2011.

“Access to justice is an issue dear to my heart,” said an impassioned Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. “It is a fundamental right, not an accessory.”

Attorney-General Chris Bentley and Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin
Attorney-General Chris Bentley and Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin

After an introduction by Attorney-General Chris Bentley, McLachlin said she was pleased to see the issue is taken seriously by the Ontario government, the academy and practitioners in various sectors of the law profession.

“The task of ensuring access to justice falls to this generation,” said Canada’s chief justice. “Access to justice implies a responsive decision by the judiciary within a reasonable time and cost.”

Her comments were quoted extensively in a Globe and Mail feature Feb. 11, 2011 on the colloquium which generated a torrent of online comments, more than 350 to date.

“People expect they can turn to the legal system for a resolution,” said McLachlin. “They are ‘hard-wired’ for justice. Access to justice affirms the rule of law, and promotes social stability.”

But as many panelists and participants discussed over the two-day event, middle-income Canadians face an uphill battle in a justice system that has effectively shuttered its doors, with average hourly billing fees running $338, and the cost of a two or three-day civil trial hovering around $60K.

The chief justice referred to access to justice as an evolutionary process. “Needs change over time. One hundred years ago, family law wasn’t a big issue. Now it is.”

 Audience members

Family law issues were cited numerous times during the colloquium, which did not go unnoticed by Justice Gloria Epstein, one of the participants. She decried that family law courses are not a mandatory part of law school curriculum.

“And yet the most vulnerable members of our community—children—are involved and profoundly affected.” She argued for the creation of a unified family court in Ontario. Epstein pointed to the 20-year success of the Commercial List. “Well, what about family law?” she asked. But the ongoing effort to create its counterpart in family law has stopped-started over the years, Epstein pointed out.

The colloquium capped off a year-long University of Toronto-based initiative that drew on the expertise of legal luminaries in the Canadian bar and bench and also from the US, UK and Australia [“Open Access,” Nexus, Spring/Summer 2010].

The initiative is focused on generating concrete proposals to increase access to justice for middle-income Canadians. Current strategies in use in the UK and the US, such as community advice bureaus, non-lawyer forms of assistance, and legal insurance plans are also part of the research. The colloquium focused on three hot-topic areas of family law, consumer/debtor-creditor and employment law.

In her keynote address, McLachlin argued for a multi-pronged solution, involving government (streamlined processes), the bar (developing a public interest bar), the judiciary (quick decisions) and the academy (teaching about access to justice).

“There is no silver bullet. We have to commit ourselves to working on this issue. I look forward to hearing what has been accomplished at this colloquium.”

View Chief Madam Justice Beverley’s McLachlin’s speech in its entirety with introductions by Dean Mayo Moran, and Ontario Attorney-General Chris Bentley.

The Chief Justice's speech was also cited in other media stories:

Also available is the Literature Review Background Paper (PDF) prepared for the colloquium.

 Audience members

Photos by Jeff Kirk