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Reports cite heavy toll of legal problems on Canadian society

Reports cite heavy toll of legal problems on Canadian society
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

The price paid for legal problems is not just made up of dollars and cents, but with impacts on health, loss of employment and an increased reliance on social assistance, reports the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ).

Three reports from the CFCJ, released on Jan. 5, break down the number of Canadians experiencing a variety of legal problems and the impact they have on different aspects of their lives. The reports show that millions of Canadians experience physical and mental health problems, loss of employment and a loss of housing as a direct consequence of legal problems.

“These reports focus on three specific areas and I think what they all do is highlight the importance of thinking about justice from the user’s perspective as opposed to only the providers’ perspective,” said Trevor Farrow, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and principal investigator on the CFCJ reports.

“I think we’re starting to understand that how the user perceives and experiences the system is very different,” he added, explaining that in order to move into a more modern and accessible legal system the gap between user experience and legal offerings needs to close.

The report on health impacts is based on feedback from over 3,000 Canadians describing legal problems they’ve faced over a three-year period. The data shows that 30 per cent of people experiencing one legal problem during that time frame had issues with their physical health. Further to that number, over 65 per cent of the respondents visited a physician more frequently than normal due to their legal problem.

In the report highlighting loss of employment and housing, the CFCJ points to its Cost of Justice survey, which noted that approximately 100,839 people lose their housing every year as a result of experiencing legal problems. People in this position have to turn to friends, relatives or emergency housing such as shelters to keep a roof over their heads. The number of weeks respondents were without their own home varied, but around 22 per cent were without a home for less than four weeks, while over 11 per cent reported that they were without a home for 52 weeks or longer.

Farrow said the reports are the first in Canada to document the monetary value of social costs legal problems cause on a national scale. He explained this data shows what will happen to people across the country if legal services continue to be inaccessible.  

“On one level these reports are designed to provide, as far as possible, neutral views on the impacts of legal problems on various parts of people’s daily lives. What we do with that information is now the million-dollar question,” said Farrow, adding that he hopes the reports will influence policy-makers to think differently about budgets and law reform.

Farrow believes more research needs to be done to capture the cost of justice across Canada and that this is a good opportunity to break down silos and collaborate with other service providers.

“We see that justice problems are part of a continuum of social problems: housing issues, education issues, etc. So I think it makes the case for why collaboration on legal services and social services is important,” he said, adding that this data is also a strong argument for investing in the justice system.

“I think justice has certainly been at the lower end of the budget scale compared to other items like policing, health and education. Of course those other sectors are important and they need to be resourced. What we’re starting to see with these reports is we’ve punched way below our weight in terms of justice budgets. We have not really understood the dramatic impact that inaccessible justice has on people’s well-being,” he explained.

Highlighting that legal problems have a social impact, and therefore a direct cost to the state, is just one step in the right direction, Farrow noted. He said it’s unfair for the burden of problem solving to be left to individual lawyers and now is the time for regulators to take a larger role.

“We’re not going to solve all the problems at the retail level in terms of at every lawyer’s office. Having said that, we know that legal services get ultimately delivered to society generally through lawyers in this country because we still have a self-regulated profession. Because of that I think it would be improper and unfortunate if we all, as individuals, don’t start to take seriously what we now know as the impact of what the kinds of services we provide and the kinds of experiences people have,” he said, adding that this data will make a difference in the way people view unbundling of legal services, pro bono work and creative collaboration with other professionals.  

“At the wholesale level, in terms of the law societies, regulatory regimes and government, I think the question now is: what are we going to do now to support lawyers in order to make services, our courts and tribunals accessible?” he said.

Farrow believes that if regulators and lawyers don’t find a way to increase access to justice the public will find ways to go around the system.

“If the body that’s been given the responsibility to deliver justice in the province and in the country is not up to the task then, quite frankly, the market and the people are going to simply look elsewhere. So I think it’s high time that the profession and individual lawyers become part of the solution as opposed to maintaining part of the problematic landscape,” he said.

Farrow notes that consumers are going to start turning more to companies such as Axess Law, a law-made-easy company, or online dispute resolution if the legal profession doesn’t innovate soon.

“I think, quite frankly, what we need to do is start having these topics become part of the everyday conversations of the public. It will start to become a matter of public interest and, I hope, we’ll get the strong attention of our elected officials. That’s when real social change gets driven. I think we’re in a good place, but I think this has implications beyond lawyers and clients. It really connects to all of us,” he said.

The three reports make up part of the CFCJ's Cost of Justice project, which has been examining the social and economic costs of the Canadian justice system since 2011.