Expanding Horizons: Rethinking Access to Justice in Canada

Discussion and Comments

Following the plenary presentations, each table was asked to discuss what they heard and then to share with all the participants their reactions to the presentations.

The following list summarises comments captured by the note-takers:

  • There is a lack of resources to address the underlying causes of criminal and civil justice problems, namely social and economic inequality.
  • Resources are a key issue. If we cannot find resources for new and innovative, community-based programs, then access to justice is a hollow practice.
  • If we are going to talk about the role of the community in providing access to justice services, then we need to define what we mean by community.
  • “Feeding the justice system with endless resources is no longer a solution – access to the justice system is not enough, access to justice is necessary.”

    A Participant
    Recourse to the official legal system should be a secondary response, not a primary one (except for cases involving serious or violent crime).
  • The concept of justice means different things to different people. There is a difference between access to the formal justice system and access to social justice. Social justice requires more input and deals with complex social issues. [Criminal] legal justice focuses primarily on sentencing.
  • The three speakers gave us the impression that we need a communal or community response to justice issues. However, our society is urban, individualistic and moving away from communal loyalties.
  • The justice system is primarily white and middle-class. In theory, the system treats everyone in the same way. However, there is a basic inequity because people are treated differently and have different experiences before they enter the formal justice system.
  • The justice system is failing, but it has no solutions. The justice system has become an end in itself; we forget that its purpose is to be a means to an end.
  • There has to be some compromise between community justice and “monolithic” or institutionalised justice. Citizen engagement is an important aspect of access to justice. A much broader approach is required to provide adequate access to justice.
  • Information technology may help foster better access to justice.
  • “We need an alternative to the adversarial justice system. As it is, lawyers dominate the system.”

    A Participant
    We must find ways of involving diverse communities. Community models need to be designed; community cohesion is important.
  • In the hands of judges, restorative justice can be coercive. This has been the experience with conditional sentencing (e.g. house arrest is the norm, which is inconsistent with restorative justice). There is a risk in taking good ideas and making them bad by incorporating them into the formal system (e.g. what happens if the traditional system “appropriates” sentencing circles with coercive tools?).
  • Some participants distrusted government consultation. They suspected that the Symposium was about downloading services to the community. What does shared responsibility mean? There will be many “turf wars” regarding funding for communities, and there will be issues of accountability.
  • Education must accompany the emergence of community-based access to justice programs or initiatives. The public must understand that community-based programs do not represent a threat to their personal safety and security.
  • There is a need to build a partnership between the government and community, especially between the government and marginalized people or groups.
  • Restorative justice programs are not only being implemented on reserves. They are being introduced in urban centres, focussing on local and community problem solving.
  • Increased reliance on community-based justice initiatives can be a burden on community groups. There is only so much that any individual or community can accomplish (pilot project burnout).
  • How do we lead people away from dependence on the formal justice system toward a more community-based approach?
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