Access to Justice: People-centred justice requires good data | Andromache Karakatsanis

By Andromache Karakatsanis

Law360 Canada (November 15, 2022, 10:12 AM EST) --
Andromache Karakatsanis
Andromache Karakatsanis
Justice is a basic human need. In our highly regulated and complex society, people confront legal problems in myriad aspects of their daily lives. And access to a just result can take many different paths. Access to justice is not just about making our justice system less costly, more timely and efficient. Although it is that too. It is about keeping the focus on the people it serves, and recognizing that courts are a last resort, that justice is often best served by resolving legal issues outside of the courts.

Across the globe, justice sectors are trying to build justice systems that cater to the legal needs of real people, and that enables their effective participation and engagement in the justice process.

Legal needs surveys completed in the last three decades show that less than 10 per cent of legal needs are resolved by the formal justice system.

People-centred access to justice attempts to bridge this gap. It takes a broad, encompassing approach to the justice system to fit the services it offers to the legal problems of the people that need it. In doing so, people centred access to justice seeks to remove the barriers that many face in accessing justice, such as cost, complexity, lack of language skills, remoteness and discrimination.

Over the past few years, the justice sector across the globe has embraced the concept of “people-centred justice.” As a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study put it: “A justice system that puts people at the centre and has as its purpose and its design the goal of equally meeting the needs of all people of that jurisdiction, by enabling their effective participation and engagement in the process.”

But people-centred access to justice cannot meet the needs of the people the justice system is meant to serve without identifying what those needs actually are and the barriers that impede them. For that reason, access to justice depends on data; good data. Given the necessarily broad perspective needed to achieve people-centred access to justice, information concerning the legal issues and barriers faced by individuals is crucial.       

C’est donc à travers de la quantification des enjeux qui s’impose aux justiciables que l’accès à la justice peut faire une réalité de ses nobles aspirations. Nous devons construire les idéals que nous promet l’accès à la justice plurielle sur une fondation solide de données empirique. Sinon, le tout risque de s’écrouler.

Unfortunately, building that evidentiary foundation has been a slow, fractured process. In Canada and elsewhere, different actors collect different data at different points in the justice process based on their differing needs, skills and rules. Compiling that data into one cohesive whole, even in its imperfect form, is frustrated by further barriers such as privacy and institutional independence. People-centred access to justice requires more. Its broad, inclusive mandate can be accomplished only through equally broad and inclusive data.

However, there is growing cause for optimism. This year’s Access to Justice Week highlighted methods to increase our evidence base, allowing us to understand the needs of the people the justice system must serve, and to adapt its services accordingly. And, our ability to understand and respond to that information is growing with every added piece of datum. Our ever-growing evidence base brings us closer and closer to using that data to serve people.

The access to justice community must continue this work. It is only by understanding the needs of individuals and the barriers they face in accessing justice that our system can provide solutions to the everyday legal needs of the people it was built to serve. Good data and information are essential to achieving this objective. It is the first step in removing the barriers to effective dispute resolution and remodelling the justice system as a people-centred institution.

Justice Andromache Karakatsanis is the chair of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. A former private law practitioner, tribunal chair and public service leader, she was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in October 2011.

Photo credit: Jessica Deeks.