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What is Access to Justice and Why is it Important?

access to justice Apr 01, 2022

 What is access to justice? 

Access to Justice (or A2J) generally refers to the idea that many people’s legal issues go unresolved due to economic, social, political and environmental barriers. Evidence-based research has found that “in Canada, almost half of the adult population will experience a serious legal problem over the course of a three-year period” and “many of those reporting one serious legal problem will experience multiple legal problems.” [1] Barriers preventing vulnerable and marginalized populations from accessing the means to resolve their legal issues are exacerbated due to a variety of factors, including gender and gender identity, race, culture, age, language, literacy, disability, income and geographical location. [2] Access to justice is a pressing issue in Canada. So much so, it has received the attention of the highest court in our land. The Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of The Supreme Court of Canada, has described access to justice as many things:  

  • the financial ability to access legal assistance; 
  • being knowledgeable about one’s right to counsel; 
  • timely resolution of legal issues; 
  • understanding the tools and services available and how to access them; 
  • seeing representation in the justice system and having confidence in that system; 
  • creating a landscape of good justice for all, not just a few. [3] 

In a study of access to justice issues and perceptions amongst participants in the Greater Toronto Area, Trevor CW Farrow found two underlying themes in survey answers: access to justice is about access to a justice system that facilities a good life; and access to justice needs to take a higher place in civil discourse and widespread conversation. [4] The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated access to justice issues. In response, the government of Ontario passed the Accelerating Access to Justice Act, 2021, which is meant to modernize processes and remove barriers within Ontario’s legal justice system. [5, 6] It is both difficult and inadvisable to settle on a single definition of access to justice. Rather, the term connotes a pressing issue that Canadians face in resolving their legal issues. 

Why is access to justice important? 

A significant characteristic of our justice system is how well it addresses people’s legal issues. Failures of that system should be taken seriously. For individuals, nobody should have to wait years and spend thousands of dollars to resolve their legal problems. From a community perspective, efficient resolution of legal issues benefits everyone. For example, fewer court proceedings means new cases can be heard sooner and dealt with faster. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to be mindful of access to justice issues and work to fix them. Thinking more abstractly, access to the justice system is a moral right and as members of our society people deserve to have cost-effective and timely legal assistance. Chief Justice Richard Wagner has explained this thought eloquently: “everyone has the right to equal treatment under the law and equal benefit of the law. To deny access to justice is to deny people their dignity, to say that some people are worthy of justice and some aren’t.” [7] 


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