Access to justice isn’t just a money problem, but a perception problem | Isabela Bibulovic

By Isabela Bibulovic

Law360 Canada (July 30, 2020, 1:10 PM EDT) --
Isabela Bibulovic
It’s time we addressed the elephant in the room: lawyers don’t have a good rep. Tell someone you’re a doctor and then correct yourself and say, “No actually, I’m a lawyer,” and see the reaction.

As one German proverb says: “Doctors purge the body, ministers the conscience, lawyers the purse.”

There are many iterations of the same cheeky referrals to lawyers in most cultures. However, the question that begs asking is, how has the profession come this far?

As an outsider observing intently the functions of the justice system, I can confidently point to accessibility as a major barrier. Not just accessibility in terms of financial affordability, but rather a “perception problem” that the law is not for all. It’s somehow viewed to be just for corporations, criminals or politicians (listed in no particular order).

In contrast, I prefer this famed characterization: “Lawyers are the foot soldiers of our Constitution.”

It wasn’t so long ago in the 1980s when one of the basic rights enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was threatened.

In R. v. Big M Drug Mart [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295, the Lord’s Day Act was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 6-0 decision for violating section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It would seem ludicrous for us to even imagine our Parliament enforcing what we can or cannot do on a certain day of the week, especially when it conflicts with religious freedoms.

However, it didn’t seem to be a problem for our lawmakers — elected officials — even appealing the court rulings all the way to the Supreme Court level.

Who stood up for our rights, you may ask? Lawyers ... the “foot soldiers.”

Lawyers perform their roles in a societal context that was largely not created by them. Therefore, to point the finger of blame for the lack of access to justice solely towards lawyers, and their fees, is highly unfair.

Being a foot soldier for the rights for all is an impeccable honour, but a huge responsibility as well. Thus, there is an onus on each and every one of us, whether currently practising or not, to ensure that the environment in which lawyers are to perform is made suitable so that justice may be offered in an equitable manner.

Enter legal innovators. No one understands this great responsibility more than they. Some are legal practitioners themselves, others technology maestros, but they’re united by the same conviction. Unfortunately, you can’t bring a 17th century system to par with the 21st century overnight, but one by one it is possible.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been observing the inner workings of legal practice with a desire to join its ranks one day myself. What stood out was the divide between legal innovators and legal practitioners. Call it the Great Schism 2.0, if you wish. Especially as COVID-19 engulfed the planet, it only enlarged this divide and turned it into a gaping crater.

From my interactions with individuals who live and breathe legal innovation, it became clear that there was a thirst for exposure. Both innovators and practitioners need each other in order to facilitate the delivery of legal services in the COVID-19 era, but how can you be aware you’re missing something if you never knew it even existed?

The thought then came, what if there could be a way to connect legal practitioners with legal innovators by featuring their respective initiatives?

I searched to see if there was anything out there with that specific goal, but to my surprise the findings were scarcer than hen’s teeth. Sure, there were general networking sites, but the only purpose they served was to connect practitioners with their growing bubble and innovators with theirs, only expanding the divide.

One possible solution: a bridge of sorts, linking legal innovators and legal practitioners by featuring their latest and greatest initiatives.

Let’s say a lawyer comes to read about themselves, they will naturally be exposed to the latest offerings in legal innovation. Now flip the coin. If a legal innovator comes to read about their innovation they can get an insider’s perspective on what the current needs are in legal practice. A natural connection is made, and exposure suddenly translates into a need being met.

As the practice of law has changed drastically in these past few months, it has forced a centuries-old system to adapt rapidly. Luckily, these innovators are prepared.

While opposing counsel may be expending their energy on formatting a book of authorities, you can have it done in a fraction of the time and cost by introducing an automated process.

Are the daily operations of your firm constantly giving you a headache, especially as new regulations are popping up daily? What if you had a platform that tracked and ensured your firm’s legal compliance for you?

These are one of the many facets of legal practice that innovators have addressed in order to make the job of you, the foot soldier, infinitely more efficient.

It is of imperative importance for the justice system to be “woke” in order to ensure adequate access to justice for all. I firmly believe that by continuing to shine a light on various initiatives and innovations within the field, this will help facilitate the implementation of legal technology and innovation in the everyday practice of law, rendering it more efficient and thus, more accessible.

This belief frames my perception of the justice system, and if I am so lucky, the way I hope to approach the practice one day myself.

Isabela Bibulovic is the founder of firmUp and a recent graduate from her undergraduate studies with a bachelor of commerce from York University. She aims to pursue legal studies in the near future.

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