CFCJ Report on Access to Civil & Family Justice: A Roadmap to Change

There is a serious access to justice problem in Canada. The civil and family justice system is too complex, too slow and too expensive. It is too often incapable of producing just outcomes that are proportional to the problems brought to it or reflective of the needs of the people it is meant to serve. While there are many dedicated people trying hard to make it work and there have been many reform efforts, the system continues to lack coherent leadership, institutional structures that can design and implement change, and appropriate coordination to ensure consistent and cost effective reform. Major change is needed.

This report has three purposes:

  • to promote a broad understanding of what we mean by access to justice and of the access to justice problem facing our civil and family justice system;
  • to identify and promote a new way of thinking — a culture shift — to guide our approach to reform; and
  • to provide an access to justice roadmap for real improvement.

The report does not set out to provide detailed guidance on how to improve all aspects of the civil and family justice system across Canada’s ten provinces and three territories. That needs to come largely from the ground up, through strong mechanisms and institutions developed locally. Local service providers, justice system stakeholders and individual champions must be the change makers. This report can, however, help fill the need for a coordinated and collaborative national voice — a change agent — providing a multi- party justice system vision and an overall goal-based roadmap for change. The ways of the past — often working in silos and reinventing wheels — are not sustainable. A coordinated, although not centralized, national reform effort is needed. Innovative thinking at all levels will be critical for success.

When thinking about access to justice, the starting point and consistent focus of the Action Committee is on the broad range of legal problems experienced by the public — not just those that are adjudicated by courts. As we detail in part 1 of this report, there are clearly major access to justice gaps in Canada.

For example:

  • Nearly 12 million Canadians will experience at least 1 legal problem in a given 3 year period. Few will have the resources to solve them.
  • Members of poor and vulnerable groups are particularly prone to legal problems. They experience more legal problems than higher income earners and more secure groups.
  • People’s problems multiply; that is, having one kind of legal problem can often lead to other legal, social and health related problems.
  • Finally, legal problems have social and economic costs. Unresolved legal problems adversely affect people’s lives and the public purse.

The current system, which is inaccessible to so many and unable to respond adequately to the problem, is unsustainable.

In part 2 of this report we offer six guiding principles for change, which amount to a shift in culture:

1. Put the Public First

2. Collaborate and Coordinate

3. Prevent and Educate

4. Simplify, Make Coherent, Proportional and Sustainable

5. Take Action

6. Focus on Outcomes

Taken together, these principles spell out the elements of an overriding culture of reform that is a precondition for developing specific measures of change and implementation.

Part 3 of this report provides a nine-point access to justice roadmap designed to bridge the implementation gap between ideas and action. It sets out three main areas for reform: (A) specific civil and family justice innovations, (B) institutions and structures, and (C) research and funding:

A. Innovation Goals

1. Refocus the Justice System to Reflect and Address Everyday Legal Problems

2. Make Essential Legal Services Available to Everyone

3. Make Courts and Tribunals Fully Accessible Multi- Service Centres for Public Dispute Resolution

4. Make Coordinated and Appropriate Multidisciplinary Family Services Easily Accessible

B. Institutional and Structural Goals

5. Create Local and National Access to Justice Implementation Mechanisms

6. Promote a Sustainable, Accessible and Integrated Justice Agenda through Legal Education

7. Enhance the Innovation Capacity of the Civil and Family Justice System

C. Research and Funding Goals

8. Support Access to Justice Research to Promote Evidence-Based Policy Making

9. Promote Coherent, Integrated and Sustained Funding Strategies

Access to justice is at a critical stage in Canada.

What is needed is major, sustained and collaborative system-wide change – in the form of cultural and institutional innovation, research and funding-based reform. This report provides a multi-sector national plan for reform. The approach is to provide leadership through the promotion of concrete development goals. These are recommended goals, not dictates. Specific local conditions or problems call for locally tailored approaches and solutions.

Although we face serious access to justice challenges, there are many reasons to be optimistic about our ability to bridge the current implementation gap by pursuing concrete access to justice reforms.

People within and beyond the civil and family justice system are increasingly engaged by access to justice challenges and many individuals and organizations are already working hard for change. We hope that the work of the Action Committee and in particular this report will lead to:

  • a measurable and significant increase in civil and family access to justice within 5 years;
  • a national access to justice policy framework that is widely accepted and adopted;
  • local jurisdictions putting in place strategies and mechanisms for meaningful and sustainable change;
  • a permanent national body being created and supported to promote, guide and monitor meaningful local and national access to justice initiatives;
  • access to civil and family justice becoming a topic of general civic discussion and engagement about issues of everyday individual and community interest and wellbeing; and
  • the public being placed squarely at the centre of all meaningful civil and family justice education and reform efforts.

To view the report in its entirety, please see: