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Time to invest in justice | Trevor Farrow and Mary Condon

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 @ 9:03 AM | By Trevor Farrow and Mary Condon

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Trevor Farrow
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Mary Condon
Justice affects everyone. We know that almost 50 per cent of adult Canadians will experience a significant civil or family justice problem over any given three-year period, meaning essentially all of us in our lifetime. Everyday legal problems include debt issues, divorce, lost employment, wage or other discrimination, consumer problems and any number of other issues.

We know that experiencing legal problems results in significant economic and social costs — to individuals and the state. People spend on average over $6,000 to deal with a legal problem. In addition to money, people spend a huge amount of time dealing with their legal issues — time that could be spent working or doing other things. Legal problems also lead to physical and mental health issues, the increased use of employment assistance and social assistance, as well as an increased loss of housing and shelter. Research indicates that legal problems annually cost the state approximately $250 million in increased social assistance costs, $450 million in increased employment assistance costs and over $100 million in additional health care costs, and likely much more.

We know that cost is a major factor in people’s ability to address their legal problems. We know that experiencing one legal problem often leads to more legal problems. And we know that vulnerable individuals and communities experience more legal problems than others and that they have fewer resources to deal with those problems.

To be eligible for legal aid in Ontario, a person’s annual income needs to be below $18,000 for most cases (and legal aid only covers a limited number of legal issues). Other provinces have similarly low eligibility restrictions. That means for most people and for most problems, no public legal assistance is available. Many people simply have no way and nowhere to go to deal with their legal problems. Recent budget cuts to legal aid have heightened these concerns.

Access to justice problems are not only a Canadian concern. A recent international study indicates that 5.1 billion people — two-thirds of the world’s population — lack meaningful access to justice. The United Nations has recently included access to justice as part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Canada — as part of the United Nations community — needs to do its part. Some might ask “Don’t we already have a great justice system?” The answer is “yes” — Canada has one of the best justice systems in the world. However, that is not the point: far too few people have meaningful access to it.

Providing an accessible justice system, and in particular providing legal services at least to the most vulnerable members of our communities, is not only the right thing to do, it also makes sense. A report from the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice released in October indicates that spending money on justice leads to significant economic returns. For example, studies of various legal aid programs in the United States show that for every $1 spent on legal aid, there is approximately a $9-to-$16 positive return on investment (and likely much more).

Other studies in other countries put this ratio even higher. These positive returns include things like direct monetary benefits to people successfully addressing their legal issues, community benefits from money being put back into the economy, savings in court services, and savings to other public resources. Other findings indicate that investing in justice can lead to lower rates of incarceration and reduced crime rates; savings from protecting families from domestic violence; avoiding disruption in children’s education, decreased credit ratings and lost employment; and increased rates of positive social behaviour (staying employed, staying in school, etc.). Additionally, research indicates that people who have adequate assistance with their legal problems tend to get better results, report better experiences with the system, and overall are more empowered in their lives.

Making justice accessible to everyone involves all justice stakeholders, including lawyers, judges, law societies, law schools, and others. We all need to do our part. However, governments have a leadership role to play — starting with the allocation of public resources — in making justice accessible. We know that hard choices need to be made around tight government budgets. However, as the research shows, cutting justice budgets will cost the public much more than it saves. It’s time to let evidence and not politics determine how to fix our justice crisis.

Trevor C.W. Farrow is a professor and former associate dean at Osgoode Hall Law School. He is also the chair of the Canadian Forum on Civil JusticeMary Condon is dean of Osgoode Hall Law School and former vice-chair of the Ontario Securities Commission. An Osgoode faculty member since 1992, her research and teaching focuses on regulation of securities markets, investment funds, online investing and pensions.

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