Canada's top judge says Canadians of all backgrounds deserve access to legal system

Expense and delays make people afraid of exploring their legal rights, McLachlin says.

Photo of Beverly McLachlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Canadians know how to access their health care system. But their legal system? Not so much, says the country's top judge.

A combination of information and money would help remedy the problem, she adds.

The Canadian Press has the story:

HALIFAX -- More needs to be done to ensure stress over legal fees and other worries don't prevent Canadians from getting the access to justice they deserve, the country's top judge said Saturday.

Speaking at a conference of the Canadian Bar Association, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said Canada recently placed ninth out of 12 western European and North American countries in an index on access to justice.

The index was released in June during the World Justice Forum in Barcelona, Spain.

While Canada fared well overall, McLachlin said the ranking on access to justice highlights the need for further attention.

"That's not terrible, but it does show that we're not doing as well as we should,'' McLachlin told hundreds of association members gathered at a waterfront hotel in Halifax.

When it comes to criminal matters, McLachlin said the need for access to justice differs from province to province and depends largely on legal aid. The Canadian Bar Association, she noted, has taken a strong leadership role on that issue.

However, McLachlin said there needs to be greater discussion on the civil side of the law, including personal injury cases, family matters, drafting wills and so on.

"Often ... people feel they cannot take the step of finding a lawyer or launching a lawsuit or doing whatever should be necessary to protect their legal rights,'' she later told reporters.

"They fear expense, they fear delay. In the family area, they can get mired in processes that actually exacerbate the dispute and have very negative, bad consequences for the children involved.''

McLachlin said there are a number of options that can be explored, including offering insurance through homeowners' policies that would give some measure of legal coverage or access to a lawyer.

She said in some jurisdictions, lawyers are contracted to perform particular duties, such as preparing documents, instead of handling a case from beginning to end. It can be a cheaper option for people who can't afford a lawyer for the entire duration of litigation.

She also spoke of setting up centres where people can seek advice on legal matters. McLachlin said it's important for people to have access to a lawyer to see if they have a case.

"But one of the big problems is that people don't even have that first step,'' she said.

"The legal system can be quite complex and intimidating to an ordinary person who is not schooled in the law or may just have gone online and gotten certain ideas.''

Melina Buckley, chairwoman of the Canadian Bar Association's access to justice committee, said making people aware of their legal rights remains a hurdle.

The Vancouver-based lawyer said most Canadians know how to access health care if they run into medical problems, but don't know where to start if they encounter legal issues.

"Having a simple, effective way for people to resolve their legal problems is an essential aspect of how a democracy works,'' Buckley said in an interview.

She said the committee is working to identify initiatives with the best chance of making a difference. The association is very concerned about inadequate funding of legal aid and what kind of assistance is being offered to people who fall through the cracks, she said.

Buckley said lawyers already do a "tremendous amount'' of pro bono work, but it can't always be used to shoulder the burden of access to justice.

"We want to do it, we see it as part of our professional obligation,'' she said. "But we're really feeling that we're enabling a system that's just about broken.''

McLachlin also told reporters that more needs to be done to help mentally ill offenders trapped in a "revolving door'' of committing crimes, spending time in jail and being released after a few days.

She said the issue is a top priority for police, prosecutors and judges.

Among the problems, she said, is the lack of beds for mentally ill offenders requiring psychological assessments, particularly young people.

"We still have work to do,'' she said. "But the good news is . . . there's much more public awareness of mental illness and its interplay and how it affects the justice system.''

The Canadian Bar Association conference ends Tuesday.

Gov. Gen David Johnston and Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of AOL Huffington Post Media Group, are expected to address the group Sunday.

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