Access to Justice. It's attracted plenty of attention lately, although not in a "good news story" sort of way, regrettably.
BC Court of Appeal Chief Justice Lance Finch called it the "elephant in the room", and Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin warned of the "very dangerous road" the legal system is on, pointing to the dower truth that access to justice is beyond the reach of many Canadians. Law Society of BC President Gavin Hume, QC put it pithily, “You don’t need to go to law school to figure out that without access to justice there can be no justice."
The media have taken notice too, and (being not likewise beholden to judicial reserve) tend to be blunt about it. As Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun summarized it in an article this past February, “No matter what your metaphor—the elephant in the room or the writing on the wall—the situation is alarming.”
When Len Doust, QC released the "Foundation for Change" report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid this past March, the report, although illuminating, hardly brightened expressions of those who read the thorough account of access to justice's failure in BC. Add to this the fact that BC’s contribution to legal aid plans just keeps dropping—in 2009/2010 it was almost half of what Ontario managed ($11.81 versus $20.04 per capita) according to Statistics Canada—and it’s easy to see how helplessness settles in.
Cut to the Good News: 24 Information Packages from the Courts
It’s some comfort to know that light finds its way even into the dark places sometimes. (And in all fairness I ought point out that it's hardly all darkness, with thousands of lawyers volunteering, working pro bono, or engaged in careers in the non-profit legal sector.)
The good news recently started as an inconspicuous little blurb on the BC Supreme Court’s homepage on April 21, 2011 announcing new information packages for self-represented litigants. We put up a quick announcement at the time listing the two dozen new packages—we saw an immediate effect. Of the members of the public who use our Vancouver branch's computer facilities, several came in soon after to complete forms in connection with the information packages.
The information packages are aimed at self-represented litigants and others engaged in a variety of court-related applications and proceedings. Most of the information packages contain, where applicable, forms, instructions and some commentary, but vary widely—from non-adversarial matters (such as name changes, indigency applications, company restoration, and even adoptions), to appeals and judicial review issues (including separate packages for appeals generally, Masters’ orders, Legal Professions Act reviews, small claims, and petitions for judicial review), to post-judgment and execution issues (such as packages for costs, enforcement and garnishment issues, etc.), to civil litigation basics (chambers applications, responses, CPLs, financial statements, etc.).
For self-represented people and those who assist them, the packages are as indispensable as better-known resources such as the Justice Education Society’s Guidebooks for Representing Yourself In Supreme Court, or JP Boyd’s BC Family Law Resource with its various sample documents.
If you are ever in a position to refer someone to legal information about the BC Supreme Court, bookmark this right now.
Not that long ago, BC Supreme Court's registries offered printed forms and other information over the counter—albeit the degree of assistance varied between court locations. With the introduction of the new Rules, however, ready-to-fill-in forms virtually disappeared from counters across the Province, withdrawn presumably out of wariness over old support materials’ inaccuracy given the transition.
But it looks as though these new information packages do more than simply stand in place for the ones the Registry pulled.
Sheri Albert, Provincial Registrars’ Program Manager at the Law Courts told me, “These packages are being offered to the public for the first time and are targeted to assist self represented litigants by providing some general instructions, applicable forms, any related rules and/or Practice Directions specific to the application.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Albert emphasizes that they are intended for procedural guidance, and not as a substitute for legal advice (a refrain that all of us in the legal information sector understand too well). Nonetheless, the information packages will be up-to-date, and they will certainly be more useful in addressing the needs of self-represented individuals than no support at all.
“They were prepared by judiciary staff and will continue to be administered by us, which is why we chose to post them on the Court’s website.”
As grim as the state of legal aid and access to justice may be, by placing these information packages online (via www.clicklaw.bc.ca, for example) and in the hands of public legal education and information providers, the Courts are at least rendering certain court procedures a little less opaque.
Even though legal information is no substitute for legal representation, it is clear that in combination with other initiatives, such as unbundled legal services or paralegals and articled students providing certain legal services at lower cost, we are seeing a meaningful group effort from many stakeholders in the legal community.
Have you used or referred anyone else to the new information packages? If you would, please share your thoughts on these new packages and the access to justice issue—whether you're confident in their usefulness, or doubtful of Band-Aid measures. Please discuss and contribute your comments below.