One of A2JBC’s messages has been that improving access to the justice system will require taking some risks. A2JBC has also said that effective change will require collaboration and experimentation. We will need to explore ideas that may seem threatening or even, to some, antithetical to justice. Putting the user at the centre of the justice system may feel uncomfortable for judges, lawyers and others who are accustomed to occupying the centre position.
The fact of the matter is that the justice system has changed already. Although reliable data is scarce, it is uncontroversial that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of self-represented litigants over the past two decades, especially in family law. The result is that there are as many or more litigants navigating the family justice system by themselves than there are litigants with lawyers to represent them.
This segment of the population—people who have an unmet need for legal services—concerns A2JBC. It’s been five years since the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters set the goal that by 2018 family law litigants would have available to them a range of accessible and affordable services and options. They called it “a family justice services continuum”, which would, among other things, “expand reliance upon properly trained and supervised paralegals, law students, articling students and non-lawyer experts to provide a range of services to families with legal problems.”
The Law Society of British Columbia is currently exploring changes that could result in a new category of legal service delivery involving non-lawyers who would assist family law litigants. The Law Society has issued a consultation paper to explore the implications of any such new category.
The idea of people other than lawyers delivering legal services is controversial, for legitimate reasons, and concerns about risk, fairness, viability, etc. need to be discussed and addressed. That said, it appears to me that the motivating force behind the consultation is a genuine effort to explore innovations that have the potential to improve the experience of justice system users who have unmet legal needs.
A2JBC has written a letter to the President of the Law Society suggesting an extension of the consultation process. A2JBC supports creating a space for full, thoughtful and inclusive dialogue about this important access to justice proposal and the issues it raises.
Would establishing a category of non-lawyer service deliverers improve access to justice? I don’t know the answer yet. I do know that doing nothing will not help the people who need help right now. Therefore, I encourage everyone—lawyers, litigants and all members of the public—to participate in the process and ensure your views are heard.
*title borrowed from David Bowie’s song, “Changes”