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The Problems Canadians Experience in Key Areas of Life May Be Greater Than We Think

Ab Currie, PhD and Lisa Moore

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Millions of Canadians live with serious debt, persistent housing problems and face ongoing issues with unemployment. These problems have profound effects on their quality of life. They signal lives of adversity that are impacted by the economic and social constraints that these problems impose.

The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice’s (CFCJ’s) 2014 national survey of Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice[1] asked over 3,000 adults in Canada about their experiences with these markers of adversity. Separate from experiences of civil justice problems within the three-year reference period of the survey, participants were asked:

• Looking back over the last several years, how often have you been unemployed: all of the time most of the time, some of the time or have you never been unemployed over the past several years?

• Over the last several years, has debt been a serious problem for you frequently, some of the time, or not at all?

• Looking back over the last several years, would you say that having good, affordable housing has been a serious problem for you: frequently, sometimes, not at all?

The survey’s findings suggest that there is a high occurrence of these persistent issues in the lives of Canadians. The data reveal that experiencing adversity in the three areas seems to be a more general social condition than experiencing specific problems in those same areas. That is to say, facing serious debt over a number of years is not synonymous in the survey data with a higher probability of experiencing one or more debt-related legal problems over a three-year period. This pattern was true across the three areas of adversity, with the correlation between persistent unemployment and experiences of specific employment-related legal problems being the lowest.[2]

Conversely, people experiencing any of the three forms of adversity were more likely to report that they experienced one or more of the legal problems covered in the CFCJ survey compared with the general population. This suggests that having experienced these persistent problems may represent a deeper and more generalized condition of social adversity characterizing peoples’ lives that may expose them to greater risk of civil and family justice problems during a given period.

The data also reveal that what is being termed as adversity in this discussion affects a large number of Canadians. An estimated 10.4 million adult Canadians reported having experienced adversity that persisted over several years, measured in terms of one or more of the indicators examined: serious debt, trouble with good, affordable housing or unemployment problems over several years.[3] Further, for some problem types, people who experience adversity on any of the three dimensions were more likely to report that they had civil or family justice problems that were unresolved.[4] The data also show that people experiencing adversity experience larger numbers of problems and are more likely to say they experienced trigger effects in which one problem caused another.

There also appear to be connections between these markers of adversity and certain demographic characteristics. Responses to the CFCJ’s Cost of Justice survey reveal that people experiencing adversity in the three areas mentioned were more likely to be younger, to have lower levels of education and to have lower incomes. People with Aboriginal identity were also more likely than the general population to indicate that they experienced all three forms of adversity. Further, people who indicated that they have some level of physical disability were also more likely to experience adversity on all three dimensions.[5] One possible way to interpret these findings is that adversity, as it is being discussed here, may represent in part a form of social disadvantage in which members of some groups are more susceptible to being unfairly excluded from jobs, and disproportionately face financial and housing barriers. The extent to which social or economic adversity may be indicative of a long-standing or permanent precariousness in peoples’ lives is not clear. As the diversity of Canadian society grows there is value in further research to explore the links between adversity and social disadvantage with respect to these and other marginalized groups.

People experiencing adversity in terms of serious debt, unemployment and good, affordable housing were also more likely to have negative attitudes toward the justice system compared with people who responded that they had not experienced adversity at all. Respondents in the CFCJ survey were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following four statements regarding the justice system in Canada:

• The justice system in Canada is mostly fair

• The legal system works better for rich people than for poor people

• The legal rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms make a difference when people have legal problems

• Courts are an important way for ordinary people to protect their rights

Respondents who indicated that they had persistently experienced all three forms of adversity were more likely to agree with the statement that the justice system works better for the rich than for the poor, while respondents who had never experienced adversity were more likely to disagree or strongly disagree. Respondents who frequently experienced adversity with respect to debt, housing and unemployment were also more likely to strongly disagree with the other three statements— that the justice system is fair, the Charter of Rights makes a difference and the courts are important for the protection of rights – compared with respondents who said that they had not experienced adversity at all. In reality, the connection between issues of adversity experienced by people and views towards the formal justice system may be tenuous because issues related to adversity would not likely be dealt with by the courts. However, the idea of justice and the justice system has powerful symbolic value for people. It has been shown that experiencing everyday legal problems is related to negative attitudes toward the justice system even when people experiencing those legal problems have no contact with the formal justice system.[6] The courts, and more broadly the justice system are viewed as the ultimate guarantors of rights and freedoms in a liberal democracy and indications that confidence in their importance is being eroded within large segments of the population is concerning.

It may be easy to understand that people might have negative attitudes toward the justice system if they feel that their personal troubles are of little concern to the formal justice system and access to that system is beyond their reach. One way to make the connection between peoples’ everyday lives and the justice system might be through access to justice services based on outreach and holistic services, paradoxically, services that are not part of the formal justice system. One model involves reaching out to communities to understand the problems people experience and then partnering with local programs and organizations (legal and other) to address them. It involves building a seamless approach to access services and dispute resolution tools that provide a continuum of assistance from the community to the courts. This approach is rooted in the principle of proportionality and works to provide the appropriate assistance for particular problems through different access points so that the problem(s) may be resolved early and in cost- and time- effective ways.[7] Helping people move from adversity to resilience is one way that we may bridge the gap between legal justice and social justice.

This analysis identifies segments of the population who experience persistent problems in important areas of their lives, as well as a pattern that suggests those problems are connected to an increased likelihood to experience everyday legal problems within a given period. It represents another aspect of the growing findings from the body of contemporary legal problems research. We know from many studies conducted in Canada and internationally that everyday legal problems are ubiquitous in urban industrial society. We know from repeated studies carried out in Canada and elsewhere that the high prevalence of legal problems is a “nearly normal’ feature of our society. Some studies show that experiencing legal problems appears to have a momentum, and that the probability of experiencing more problems increases with each additional problem experienced. We know that many people also experience multiple problems that can result from trigger and cascade effects, sometimes forming interrelated clusters of problems that are thought to be all the more difficult to resolve because of the interdependence among them. This analysis presents another feature of the landscape of everyday legal problems. Experiencing everyday legal problems, in some circumstances, may be connected to more generalized conditions of adversity.[8] The nature of this adversity and its relation to legal problems, social disadvantage and precariousness in Canadian society should be examined further.

This blog originally appeared on Slaw on December 4th, 2018.


[1] Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie, Nicole Aylwin, Les Jacobs, David Northrup and Lisa Moore, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016) online: CFCJ < http://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files//Everyday%20Legal%20Problems%20and%20the%20Cost%20of%20Justice%20in%20Canada%20-%20Overview%20Report.pdf>.

[2] Data analysis indicates that the correlation between experiencing serious debt problems over several years and experiencing one or more specific debt problems within the three-year reference period for the survey was a modest 0.27. A similar correlation exists between persistent problems finding good, affordable housing and experiencing one or more specific housing problems – 0.28. The correlation between ongoing problems with unemployment over several years and specific employment legal problems reported in the survey was 0.12.

[3] 22.6% of respondents indicated that they had persistent debt problems, 12.1% indicated that having good affordable housing was a serious, persistent problem, 27.9% indicated that being unemployed was an ongoing issue.

[4] Cost of Justice Survey respondents who indicated that they experienced one or more civil or family justice problems over the three-year reference period of the survey were asked if the problem or dispute had been resolved or was still ongoing. See: Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Survey (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016), online: CFCJ < http://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files//Everyday%20Legal%20Problems%20and%20the%20Cost%20of%20Justice%20in%20Canada%20-%20Survey.pdf>.

[5] Research suggests that people with disabilities are more likely to experience all types of specific legal problems. For a more detailed discussion, see Ab Currie, Civil Justice Problems and the Disability and Health Status of Canadians, Pascoe Pleasence, Alexy Buck and Nigel J. Balmer (eds.) Transforming Lives and Social Process, Legal Services Research Centre, London, 2007, pp. 44-66.

[6] See for example, Ab Currie, A Lightning Rod for Discontent: Justiciable Problems and Attitudes Toward the Law and the Justice System, Pascoe Pleasence, Alexy Buck and Nigel J. Balmer (eds.), Reaching Further: Innovation, Access and Quality in Legal Services, Legal Services Research Centre (London, 2009) pp. 100 – 114.

[7] Access to Civil and Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change (Ottawa: Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, October 2013). The idea of an early resolution services sector at page 11 is a similar idea.

[8] Pascoe Pleasence, Causes of Action: Civil Law and Social Justice (2nd edition), Legal Services Commission, London, 2006 discusses similar ideas; patterns of vulnerability at pages 29-50, average duration of problems at page 147 and social exclusion at page 155.