A2J Week: Why is Access to Justice Important?

As we enter Access to Justice Week, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what access to justice is, what the Nova Scotia justice community does to promote it, and what resources are available to our members to understand what we can all do to advance the public interest and improve the administration of justice.

Access to justice is a universal principle which outlines that citizens within a democratic society must be able to participate in the justice system to exercise their rights fully, challenge discrimination and marginalization, hold lawmakers accountable, and generally have their voices heard. For us, it is crucial that the public has access to competent lawyers, both professionally and culturally. 

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is mandated to improve access to justice as per the Legal Profession Act. It states we must:

“Seek to improve the administration of justice in the Province by regularly consulting with organizations and communities in the Province having an interest in the Society’s purpose, including, but not limited to, organizations and communities reflecting the economic, ethnic, racial, sexual and linguistic diversity of the Province, and engaging in such other relevant activities as approved by the Council.”

Promoting access to justice is a responsibility of all participants in the justice community. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, the judiciary, the legislature, the police, members of the bar, advocacy groups, members of the public, and many other groups share the responsibility of creating a climate that facilitates this principle. This week recognizes the work we all do to promote access to justice and asks us to reflect on what we can do better. Like all provinces, Nova Scotia has challenges to access to justice that we, as a regulator, must continue to address. 

Legal deserts create access to justice issues in Nova Scotia. They exist when the public may be unable to find a lawyer near where they live because of the urban-rural divide. The map below illustrates the centralization of lawyers in Halifax and some counties with as few as two lawyers. The Society sees our role as a facilitator to encourage and improve rural practice conditions to improve access to justice for rural Nova Scotians. This is only one challenge that we must address to improve access to justice.

Number of practising lawyers per county, as of September 17, 2023.

The Action Group on Access to Justice is a national organization committed to improving access to justice nationwide. I encourage our members to review the activities they have coordinated and possibly make time for some of the online offerings. You can access their offerings here: https://lso.ca/theactiongroup/access-to-justice-week/schedule.

Another key stakeholder we recognize this week is the Access to Justice and Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia, which makes recommendations for the modernization, improvement and reform of law and acts as a centre of coordination, research, education, and action on access to justice. Some of their recent resources for lawyers from their “No Longer on My Own” project, which is a collaboration between the Institute, the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, Coverdale Justice Society, and Be the Peace Institute, are listed below:

Currently, they are surveying lawyers to help understand the difficulties they are experiencing in obtaining virtual orders. That survey is available here: https://s.surveyplanet.com/v0opbkla. I encourage our members to participate in this survey and reach out to the Institute if you have any questions about their resources or their work.

Throughout Access to Justice Week, the Society will spotlight some of the work we do to promote access to justice in this province. The Society’s Council has begun working on a new strategic plan, and we are certain that improving access to justice will continue to be a priority.

– Cheryl Hodder, KC, ICD.D
Chief Executive Officer
Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society