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A New Call To Action To Improve Access To Justice

Lisa Moore

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

At a UN summit in 2015, world leaders identified 17 universal threats to the well-being, safety and advancement of people worldwide and to environmental sustainability. The result was the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Officially in effect since January 2016, the SDGs aim to galvanize national and international efforts around an agenda that promotes equity, empowerment and certain fundamental rights and improvements. The target date to reach these goals is 2030.[1]

Notable for the justice community is the addition of Goal 16, which has the object to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (SDG 16). [2] Sub-goal 16.3 calls for advancing the rule of law at national and international levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all.

The importance of identifying equal access to justice as fundamental to quality of life and a goal for all countries to work towards speaks volumes.  It signals an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of legal problems, the profound effect that legal problems have on people’s lives and the need to eliminate barriers and create avenues to deal with legal problems for the betterment of societies and to improve people’s lives. Like the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2 respectively), the promotion of good health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) and climate action (SDG 13), among other goals that are common targets for global efforts, access to justice now forms part of a critically important pledge and agreement of what is “urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path”.[3]

The extent of the access to justice problem

The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law’s (HiiL’s) 2017 Annual Report and Accounts reveals, based on data collected over the course of 4 years in 12 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, approximately 1 billion new justice problems arise each year.[4] Further, an estimated 6 billion people in the world do not have adequate access to justice, with legal need being most prominent in areas related to civil and family justice problems types.[5]  Closer to home, the 2017 Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans report indicates that over the course of the last year, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil justice problem and almost 90% the civil justice problems that were reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.[6] In Canada, almost 50% of adults experience a civil or family justice problem in a given three-year period and essentially every adult will experience a serious civil or family justice problem over the course of their lifetime.[7] From civil and family courts within our borders where a majority of litigants appear without representation[8] to insufficient funding for provincial legal aid programs that threaten the delivery of legal help to low-income and vulnerable individuals[9], there are various examples of impediments to accessing justice in Canada.

In many respects, this shared universe of access to justice challenges has not hitherto provoked a sense of global urgency proportional to its seriousness. A commitment initiated through the UN SDGs for  governments to act to address this crisis and, an appeal to stakeholders in private and public sectors to contribute, to the extent of their resources, to helping to achieve this sustainable development goal (and others) is not only welcomed, it is necessary.

Progress on access to justice

The Canadian Government recently released Canada’s Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Voluntary National Review. This is the government’s first report on how Canada is responding to the 17 UN SDGs and the progress to date on the targets included for each goal. There are encouraging signs of development and engagement at the federal level in programs and activities intended to engender advancement of the specific nature outlined as part of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Additionally, the report highlights the integral work that various institutions, bodies and organizations across Canada are doing in support of these goals. Complex, far-reaching problems like access to justice benefit from buy-in from all stakeholders who can contribute to addressing the various facets of the problem. Such is the work that organizations like the national Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters are doing. In areas of access to civil and family justice, the Action Committee is coordinating and mobilizing local and regional initiatives to improve access to justice in Canada, and where possible, to assist progress on other, related goals. The breadth of the Action Committee’s efforts and national progress in 9 key areas identified by the Action Committee as critical to move the dial on access to civil justice and family justice are further documented in the recently published Justice Development Goals progress report.

A multi-country initiative that is being supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and that includes the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) and in-country partners in Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa is also highlighted in the Voluntary National Review. This collaborative project is producing evidence to support a business case for scaling up community justice services to help low and middle income earners in Canada and Africa.

Access to justice is not a new problem nor is it a unique one. There are certainly aspects of the access to justice debate that have evolved over time as has our understanding of the complexity of the problem and ways to address it. To the extent that the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists, UN SDG 16 that promotes equal access to justice has arguably put us on a necessary path towards targeted improvements. As an initial, promising step, the publication of the 2018 Voluntary National Review report shines a light on the work that is happening nationally and internationally towards improving access to justice and has also perhaps forced a reflection on our serious failings in this area. Hopefully, this is the impetus that was needed to effect significant improvements in access to justice. We have until 2030 to get there.

This blog originally appeared on Slaw  on August 14, 2018.

By Lisa Moore


[1]  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) succeed the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For more information on the Millennium Development Goals, see generally United Nations, “News on Millennium Development Goals”, online: United Nations <http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals>.

[2] SDG 16 is among nine new objectives in the UN 2030 SDGs that were not a part of the UN’s 2000-2015 MDGs. For the complete list of UN Sustainable Development Goals, see United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals”, online: United Nations < https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300>.

[3] United Nations, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, online: United Nations <https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld>.

[4] HiiL, Annual Report and Accounts 2017 (The Hague, Netherlands: HiiL, 2017) at 4, online: HiiL < http://www.hiil.org/data/sitemanagement/media/HiiL%20Annual%20report%20and%20accounts%202017.pdf>.

[5] Ibid at 12. The top 5 categories of problems identified in the countries included in the survey are family, employment, crime, land, neighbours.

[6] Legal Services Corporation & NORC at the University of Chicago, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans (Washington, DC: Legal Services Corporation, June 2017) at 6, online: Legal Services Corporation <https://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/images/TheJusticeGap-FullReport.pdf>.

[7] Trevor C.W. Farrow et al., Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016) at 2, online: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice < http://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files//Everyday%20Legal%20Problems%20and%20the%20Cost%20of%20Justice%20in%20Canada%20-%20Overview%20Report.pdf>.

[8] Julie Macfarlane, “Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants,” Final Report of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project (May 2013) at 122, online: <http://www.lsuc.on.ca/uploadedFiles/For_the_Public/About_the_Law_Society/Convocation_Decisions/2014/Self-represented_project.pdf>.

[9] See e.g., Ian Mulgrew, “Ian Mulgrew: Stretched legal aid living on hope in B.C.” Vancouver Sun (7 January 2018), online: < https://vancouversun.com/news/national/ian-mulgrew-stretched-legal-aid-living-on-hope-in-b-c>; Ian Mulgrew, “Ian Mulgrew: Legal aid boost in eye of beholder” Vancouver Sun (21 January 2018), online: < https://vancouversun.com/news/politics/ian-mulgrew-legal-aid-boost-in-eye-of-beholder>; Sean Rehaag, “The Charter and Legal Aid Ontario’s Proposed Refugee Law Cuts” (7 June 2017), A2J Blog (blog), online: < http://cfcj-fcjc.org/a2jblog/the-charter-and-legal-aid-ontario%E2%80%99s-proposed-refugee-law-cuts>.