Wellness: With access to justice, law society should walk the walk | Darryl Singer

By Darryl Singer

Law360 Canada (October 31, 2022, 11:34 AM EDT) --
Darryl Singer
Darryl Singer
Each year at this time we come around to the Law Society of Ontario’s Access To Justice Week. In my opinion, much like Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, this is a lot of talk and very little in the way of concrete change from the organization.

In my mind, access to justice ought to involve trying to create real solutions to the access to justice problem. The LSO, with its massive cash reserves, could be establishing legal clinics for the large percentage of Ontarians who fall through the family and criminal law cracks because they earn too much to qualify for legal aid (or have matters not covered because of the funding cuts) but do not have enough money to hire a lawyer. We all know that self-representation, while occasionally successful, is simply a fool’s errand.

The law society could establish some grants, bursaries, or other funding programs for those members of our profession who wish to take on marginalized clients or underfunded matters. There are many lawyers who would gladly do more for less, but for the pesky realities of rent and staff.

We could also establish some sort of pro bono initiatives, where those lawyers who spend a certain amount of time could receive a reduction in fees, insurance premiums, or have their CPD requirements waived.

And since we know access to justice for Ontarians is enhanced when our lawyers are mentally healthy, I call again for the LSO to have real change on how we deal with these issues. The LSO repeatedly ignores, neglects and refuses to assist lawyers in crisis with practice management issues, but instead spends its resources on investigation and prosecution of the lawyer who is already not managing.

The LSO wants to talk the talk but not walk the walk. It continues to have seminars on mental health where these things are discussed, but the systemic attitudes have not changed. The LSO is hosting seminars for this year’s Access to Justice Week on data collection, explaining why certain groups have trouble accessing justice. Many of these panels involve professors and other academics talking about studies. If we really want lawyers and the legal system to be able to deliver access to justice, we need to teach lawyers about people, the application of the law and how best to deliver those services. Instead, we continue to be focused on the most out-of-touch individuals in our profession (academics and Bay Street types) telling everyone else what the problems are. These panels should instead be populated by the lawyers in the trenches — the small town lawyer, the lawyer doing legal aid work in the marginalized communities, the lawyers who want to help but can’t afford to. Instead, every year for a week, we have this self-congratulatory think tank about how we need to increase access to justice. Then everyone thinks they’ve accomplished something and goes away for the next year.

I have practised law for 28 years, and access to justice is worse than it’s ever been. Why? Here are some examples:

  • court backlogs at an all-time high because we have neither enough courtrooms nor judges;
  • legal fees at an all-time high because, particularly in major urban centres like Toronto, the cost of rent, staff salaries, and the general cost of living (not to mention law school tuition) is through the roof;
  • constant changes to the laws and procedures that actually make things more time costly and time-consuming and expensive than before;
  • continuous funding cuts to legal aid; and
  • too many lawyers being admitted with no real quality control.

The LSO ought to be focused on doing whatever it can to persuade the provincial and federal governments to adequately fund the justice system, to making sure its members are healthy and have incentives to provide access to justice and to using its tremendous mandate of “protecting the public” to actually help effect systemic change. Talk is cheap. Both lawyers and their clients need action.

Darryl Singer is the head of commercial and civil litigation at Diamond & Diamond Lawyers LLP in Toronto. His views are his own.

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