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You’ve Gotta Have Faith: Considering the Subjective User and Access to Justice Reform

Karolina Wisniewski

Friday, February 28, 2014

As the National Magazine noted in a recently published article: when it comes to increasing access to justice, providing people with information is only the beginning. The article quoted Sarah McCoubrey, director of the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN), who said that subjective belief in the fairness of the system and faith in its problem-solving capacity is foundational to achieving access to justice. This may seem like a commonsensical, perhaps even an unremarkable, observation, but it’s worth pausing to consider what broader implications it carries for the way those in the legal profession understand access to justice.

Much innovative and groundbreaking work is being done on increasing the average Canadian’s ability to access the justice system. Indeed, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice is proud to be part of a vibrant community of researchers who are committed to finding new ways of facilitating access to justice and removing some of the many barriers that impede this process. However, as encouraging as such research is, it also throws into sharp relief those dimensions of accessing justice that receive less attention. One of these is the subjective user experience. Put more simply, how do people feel about the justice system? The answer to this question will necessarily impact the effective implementation of other access to justice initiatives.

Ms. McCoubrey’s words are particularly astute because she focuses on how the justice system is perceived by Canadians – a phenomenon that is as difficult to document, as it is important. Much attention has been paid to the importance of public legal education on the assumption that the idea that an informed citizen, one with legal literacy and capability, will be better equipped to handle legal problems, if and when they appear.

True as this may be, the value of a legal education extends far beyond its role in preventing legal troubles, or in simply equipping people with tips and tricks on how to navigate the system once embroiled in a legal problem. Arguably, being better educated about the civil justice system will render it more familiar, transparent and trustworthy – qualities that are not to be underestimated. As Ms. McCoubrey’s words suggest, provision of basic information does not an accessible justice system make. We need to pay equal attention to how the public perceives and understands the justice system and it is likely that increased education and awareness will not only provide practical information, but will help provide a sense of legal empowerment and increase peoples’ comfort and familiarity with the justice system.

This sentiment is reflected in a recent infographic produced by the CFCJ on  the Advice Maze. The interactive graphic illustrates the ways in which those attempting to navigate the justice system can experience feelings of isolation and frustration; without clear information on where to turn for help, people often perceive the justice system as inscrutable and inaccessible. Lack of information regarding rights and responsibilities, as well as a paucity of reliable legal advice, leave some people with the impression that the civil justice system simply cannot, or will not, assist them in resolving their problems.

Approaching the task of legal education with this in mind, we will be better placed to address the lack of trust or faith in the justice system.