Osgoode-led project on access to justice could reorient policy discussions

Canada’s justice system is arguably the foundation of our society. The rule of law, freedom under the law, democratic principles and respect for others are the bedrock of our nation’s legal heritage. Lack of access to this system is a serious problem.

Seven years ago, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ), a research organization at Osgoode Hall Law School, was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant for a multi-year study on the economic and social costs of Canada’s justice system, titled the “Cost of Justice: Weighing the Fair and Effective Resolution to Legal Problems.”

Access to justice is essential in the Canadian judicial system. Photo courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada
Access to justice is essential in the Canadian judicial system. Photo courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada
Trevor Farrow
Trevor Farrow

Osgoode Professor Trevor Farrow is the Principal Investigator for the project and the lead author on one of the project’s leading reports, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (2016). Based on a survey of over 3,000 Canadians, this report highlights the extent of the problem and the fact that legal problems, health problems and social issues are linked. It also raises some important equity issues.

“This is the first national legal needs study in Canada that looks at the issue of cost – financial and social. The data that this project brings to light is already informing future access to justice thinking in Canada and abroad,” Farrow says.

Historic and comprehensive assessment of access in Canada

The magnitude of this project cannot be underestimated. The research alliance involved in this project is made up of academics, government departments, law commissions, law societies, bar associations, public legal educators and other experts from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The project essentially asked four main questions:

  • What does the civil justice system cost?
  • Who does it serve?
  • How well is it meeting the needs of the Canadian public?
  • What is the price of failing to meet the legal needs of Canadians?

Project connects legal problems to social, health and equity issues

Key facts were brought to light in this project. (For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the social- and health-related costs.) To start, the size of the problem is larger than one might assume. In a given three-year period, almost half of Canadian adults will experience at least one everyday legal problem – that is, a problem that occurs in the course of daily life that has a civil legal dimension and that could potentially be resolved through the court system.

Legal problems cluster and often lead to social and health issues

Additionally, legal problems are often linked to health and social issues, such as unemployment, housing, depression, money problems, divorce, etc. Eighty-two per cent of people reporting a family law problem experience a related health or social problem. Thirty-eight per cent of people with an everyday legal problem reported developing a health or social issue in direct response to that problem.

A third major finding is equity based. There is an unequal distribution of these issues: low income, vulnerable and marginalized populations experience a greater share of these problems.

Findings are reorienting research and policy discussions

The project’s approach and the focus on users of the justice system have provided useful and unique insights into the state of civil justice in Canada today and what needs to be done to:

  • Equip Canadians with the tools and resources to manage their everyday civil justice problems and needs;
  • Empower individuals to participate in an engaged society that prevents disputes and addresses social issues of inequity and exclusion; and
  • Provide an accessible civil justice system centred around multiple points of entry.
This project provides insights on what needs to be done to equip people with the tools to manage their everyday civil justice problems and needs

Farrow says that this project is already playing a significant role in helping to reorient research and policy conversations toward an understanding by justice stakeholders of the needs of users of the justice system, and its costs.

“We must consider these issues from the point of view of those who use the system – the public,” he says. Farrow’s hope is that the project will inform and shape key public discussions around access to justice and our collective legal wellbeing.

To learn more about Farrow, visit his faculty profile. To read more about the “Cost of Justice” project and the CFCJ, visit the website. For more information on “The Cost of Justice” project, see the website.  To read the report, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (2016), visit the website.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca