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Access to Justice: Public engagement vital for improving access to civil, family justice | Thomas Cromwell

Monday, May 08, 2017 @ 7:19 AM | By Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell %>
Thomas Cromwell
Lawyers understand that an effective civil and family justice system is a key component of civil society. We know that the security of property, of commercial transactions, of intellectual property and even the safety and well-being of children and families depend on our civil and family laws enforceable, when necessary, with the help of independent lawyers before independent judges.

But do members of the public know this, or care?  I fear the answer is generally “no.”

This needs to change. For a host of reasons, the civil and family justice system needs the public’s support. It is their system and, ultimately, it will only be as effective as they demand it to be. And as we have learned from the Costs of Justice Project carried out by the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, the social costs of inadequate access to justice are staggering.

Justice system insiders have been grappling with the pressing problems of inadequate access to justice. But people outside the system generally don’t understand or learn about the access to justice problem until they find themselves in the midst of a dispute. A public conversation about access to justice could help people understand that law is a part of daily life that can be understood and managed throughout one's life, often with the help of legal professionals.

Enter the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters and the Law Foundation of Ontario. With the support of the foundation, the action committee has just launched a public awareness and engagement campaign. The goal is to help the public better understand why the health of the civil and family justice system should matter to them. The campaign has a simple objective: to make access to justice matter to people. I believe that building public understanding of the importance of legal health and the predictability of legal issues throughout one’s life will benefit individuals. But more than that, it will transform the access to justice conversation into an issue relevant to citizens, decision-makers, voters and people working in other professions. As long as access to justice challenges are only understood within the justice system, the possible solutions will be limited to the scope of influence, resources and imagination of the justice system.

Here are the key messages of the campaign:

  • There is a legal dimension to everyday life;
  • You can plan ahead for legal issues;
  • We know that legal problems can be intimidating, time-consuming or expensive;
  • We are working together to make the legal system work better;
  • The legal system is critical to a healthy democracy and strong communities.

How can lawyers and law firms get involved? Here are some ideas:

  •  Host the campaign on your social media or website. Offer to co-ordinate with the campaign;
  •  Integrate your local activity with the national momentum;
  •  Become a champion.

To find out more, check out the campaign graphics at or follow — and contribute — to the campaign on social media. On Twitter, have a look at #justiceforall or #justicepourtous and on Facebook at ActionCommA2J. You can also have a look our justice development goals at If you would like further information or help in using the campaign materials, contact our campaign lead, Sarah McCoubrey, at Let’s help people understand why the civil and family justice system matters to them!

The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.