Understanding access

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Confused. Frustrated. Anxious. Stressed. Angry. Bewildered. Humiliated. Isolated. Frightened. Exhausted. Wanting to just give up.  

This is how a roomful of lawyers and regulators felt on October 8, 2014 after a three-hour ‘poverty sensitization’ exercise called Living on the Edge, presented by United Way Halifax during the 2014 Annual Conference of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.  


'Living on the Edge’ with United Way Halifax at the Federation’s Annual Conference.
See the
photo album on the Society’s Facebook

“Every one of those words are words we also hear in relation to the justice system. It’s a system that doesn’t make sense to many people,” the Society’s Executive Director Darrel Pink said to more than 100 delegates representing the Federation and 14 provincial and territorial law societies.

Adopting new identities for the afternoon, each participant imagined the daily challenges of poverty. They grappled with eviction notices and expensive dental emergencies, affording daycare while job-hunting, forgoing grocery shopping in order to pay utility bills and, in some cases, language barriers or brushes with the law. The United Way is now facilitating the exercise for other groups in the Halifax region, to deepen the understanding of poverty’s complexity, and how a sudden change of circumstance can significantly impact choices.

Catherine Woodman, President and CEO of United Way Halifax, rooted the role-playing in some sobering statistics:

  • three million Canadians live in poverty today;
  • 833,000 used a food bank in 2013, a 23% increase over the past six years; and
  • last year in Halifax, 1,700 individuals used shelters, with an average stay of 40 nights.

For the law society reps, it was “an opportunity to step outside our normal roles, and our comfort zones perhaps, to see the issues from a different perspective,” said Moncton lawyer Marie-Claude Bélanger-Richard QC, President of the Federation. Law societies have a critical role to play in the pressing issues of access to justice and access to legal services, and “I believe our strength lies in leading through ongoing collaboration,” she said. 

“I believe our strength (as law societies) lies in leading through ongoing collaboration.”

– Marie-Claude Bélanger-Richard QC, Federation President

Visit to LOVECommunity visits
The collaboration theme came into focus on October 9, as participants split up into groups and fanned out across the city for 11 inspiring conversations with community and justice-oriented organizations. They asked this question at many of the sites: If you could remove one barrier or add one resource to give people access to justice, what would it be?

Teenagers and young adults offered many thoughtful ideas at Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE Nova Scotia), a violence prevention and intervention organization. A legal toolkit for youth, with basic information in clear language, would be a great start, said one. Better teaching of the legal system in schools, and ongoing legal information via social media channels would also help, “something that would get us interested to build that level of trust,” said others.

“If you’re a member of a marginalized group outside of mainstream white society, you’re more susceptible to barriers,” added LOVE staff member Richard Taylor. “We definitely have access to the criminal justice system – we’re in it.”

Other sessions took place at the Halifax Refugee Clinic, reachAbility, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services, Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court (Family Division), and also with the province’s new Access to Justice Coordination Committee, a restorative justice group, and a group of lawyers who are building innovative practices.   

Teenagers, young adults and staff at Leave Out Violence (LOVE) share their ‘check-in’ process while brainstorming with conference participants.    

After regrouping to share what they learned, the delegates brainstormed on what roles the Federation and law societies should play in enhancing access to legal services. A variety of themes emerged, from encouraging innovative legal practices to the possibility of non-lawyers assisting with some front-end legal work. Fostering cultural competence in the legal profession is pivotal, but so is developing the competence to collect, measure and evaluate data, something that’s sorely lacking in the justice system.

Though law societies across Canada are actively involved in developing access to justice solutions, the Halifax conference was the first time they collectively addressed the topic.

“It’s an issue that’s pressing in every single one of our jurisdictions,” said Jeff Hirsch, the Federation’s Vice President and Council member for Manitoba. “We’ve just had a taste of what it feels like when you’re frustrated and disempowered, when you need help with your legal problems. What can we do to help? We need to engage with the public and we need to listen to the public, to change our mindset and the way we do business.”