Few people inside or outside B.C.’s justice system would deny it needs to be fixed. Fixing it, however, is not something we can leave to the government alone.
This week, the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association released a report called An Agenda for Justice, which calls the situation a crisis and suggests a range of steps, from the no-cost to the high-cost. The lawyers’ hope is to put the issue front and centre as British Columbia’s politicians head into an election season.
Despite the importance of the topic, they will have a difficult time squeezing it onto the campaign agenda because justice-system reform is just too complicated to play well on the hustings. Nevertheless, it’s worth paying attention to the study’s recommendations because, as the report points out, in any three-year period, a resident of B.C. has a 45 per cent chance of having some dealings with the justice system.
The bar association is far from the first to take a run at this problem. Most recently, the government commissioned lawyer Geoffrey Cowper last year to study ways to fix the system. It followed up Cowper’s 12 recommendations with a white paper called A Modern, Transparent Justice System.
As might be expected, the lawyers recommend more money, including adding $18 million to the $55-million legal-aid budget over the next four years and setting a fixed number of judges, with regular reviews of the number. Those steps, and paying for the clerks and sheriffs who support the judges, are needed, but will be a tough sell in tight budget times.
Legal aid is something few of us think about, but cutbacks in this service have had a dramatic effect. The report says that in provincial court, 90 to 95 per cent of people in family court don’t have a lawyer. Aside from the risks of going into court unrepresented, this causes delays that tie up courtrooms and staff.
Money, besides being in short supply, won’t fix everything. The report also suggests a list of no-cost or low-cost changes that could make the court system work better for everyone, even if they wouldn’t clear the logjams. Most involve changes to legislation, such as removing ICBC’s power to deny driver’s licences to people who are bankrupt, limiting the liability of community groups and sports teams, protecting seniors who take out reverse mortgages and modernizing the laws about wills.
The bar association passed lightly over some changes that lawyers themselves could make. The demands for disclosure of evidence in criminal trials have become so onerous that the Victoria police say detectives spend 60 per cent of their time on disclosure and 40 per cent on investigations.
The court resources and lawyers’ time dedicated to disclosure must be just as draining on the system.
While no one wants to see slapdash justice, judges and lawyers must take a hard look at how much disclosure is necessary and how much is needlessly burdening and delaying an already-taxed system.
The rest of us have a role to play as well. Besides pushing the government to make changes, we can look at our interactions with the justice system. Instead of using the courts as the default means of settling all problems, we should consider some of the alternative dispute-resolution procedures that are increasingly available. Where it’s appropriate, mediation can be much less stressful and expensive than going to court.
A fair and efficient justice system is essential to a free society. Restoring faith in our courts will be difficult, but it cannot be put off.
© Copyright 2013