Expanding Horizons: Rethinking Access to Justice in Canada

Introduction

On March 31, 2000, the Department of Justice Canada hosted a one-day Symposium on access to justice. The Symposium sought to explore the concept of access to justice beyond its conventional boundaries. Participants were asked to rethink traditional views and explore the future challenges of assuring access to justice for Canadians in an increasingly complex and demanding environment.

In this one day of extraordinary dialogue among leading thinkers and practitioners, the Department took the pulse of the justice community about the state of access to justice in Canada. The more than 100 participants were drawn from a broad cross-section of people from all regions of Canada: judges, lawyers, policy specialists, government officials, academics, community representatives, Aboriginal, visible minority and persons with disabilities spokespersons. To ensure that participants could discuss a variety of issues with as many people as possible, each participant was assigned a place at one of 12 mixed tables during the morning plenary session and reassigned to another table during the afternoon session. Participants were free to sign up for any one of four workshops that ran concurrently. A professional conference organiser, Lise Pigeon and Associates facilitated the conference. (The agenda and the list of participants appear in Appendix A.)

Throughout the day participants discussed a variety of issues with respect to the state of the access to justice movement in Canada. In general terms the Symposium left participants with one resounding message, quite remarkably, from a large group of leading thinkers from within the justice system and from other areas of human endeavour. The key message was not so much that the justice system – both civil and criminal justice, but especially the criminal justice system – does not work. On that issue there was overwhelming agreement. The truly surprising message that emanated forcefully from this “conversation extraordinaire” was that there is a tremendous appetite for change among leaders from both inside and outside the justice system.

The purpose of this report is to summarise the Symposium proceedings and, in the process, identify the key issues that emerged from the presentations and discussions. The report concludes with a brief discussion of seven themes that can act as guideposts toward a more accessible justice system.

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