The Legal Problems of Everyday Life - The Nature, Extent and Consequences of Justiciable Problems Experienced by Canadians

Chapter IX: Justice, Justiciable Problems and Perceptions of the Fairness of the Justice System

The idea of justice is a thread that runs through all social institutions, embodying very fundamental social values of fairness and equality of treatment. Confidence in the laws and the justice system does not require that individuals have contact with the formal justice system. Civil laws touch a very broad and varied spectrum of activities in everyday life. Employment, consumer transactions, debt and credit, family relations, managing the financial affairs and the health care of the elderly and many other areas of social and commercial activity are regulated by civil laws. Experiencing adverse consequences or the weight of multiple justiciable problems appears to engender negative attitudes toward the justice system because the system is what people normally think about when they perceive injustice. The formal justice system is the lightning rod of discontent when the fundamental values that the laws and the justice system embody are offended, even though the justice system has not actually been engaged. The discontent may be focus on the justice system but it is the quality of justice writ large that characterizes the quality and integrity of the society that is the issue. The implication is that failing to provide assistance to deal with justiciable problems has the potential to erode the fibers that bind the social fabric.

This chapter explores the connection between experiencing justiciable problems and respondents' attitudes toward the laws and the justice system. Respondents were asked on a four point scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree to respond to the statement that the laws and the system of justice are essentially fair, allowing a "neither disagree or disagree" response only as a volunteered response to minimize the tendency for responses to regress toward the mean.

Table 61: Fairness of the Laws and Justice System in Canadian Society
The Laws and the Justice System Are Essentially Fair Number Per Cent
Strongly Agree 1584 23.8
Somewhat Agree 2932 44.0
Somewhat Disagree 1103 16.6
Strongly Disagree 798 12.0
Not Sure 146 2.1
No Answer 102 1.5

The more justiciable problems people have, the less favourably they view the justice system. Figure 17 shows the percentages of respondents,[242] who indicated they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that the laws and the justice system in Canadian society are essentially fair according to the number of justiciable problems they had experienced during the three-year reference period.

Figure 17: Percent of Respondents With a Favourable Perception of the Law and the Justice System by Number of Justiciable Problems

Figure 17: Percent of Respondents With a Favourable Perception of the Law and the Justice System by Number of Justiciable Problems

[Description]

The data shows that the greater the number of justiciable problems experienced, the less likely respondents are to perceive the laws and justice system as fair. About 72 per cent of people who experienced no problems expressed a favourable view about the fairness of the laws and the justice system. This percentage declines steadily as the number of reported problems increases. Only 40 per cent of respondents with seven or more problems feel that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair. This may appear to present something of a pons asinorum since the vast majority of the respondents had no connection with the formal justice system in dealing with their problems. While the nature of this connection might be profitably examined in greater detail than is possible here, it appears that respondents are generalizing about justice 'writ large'. Justice is a universal value. It is a thread that runs through all of the structures of society, by virtue of the fact that the civil laws permeate virtually all aspects of social activity.

It was emphasized in Chapter One that a person could experience a justiciable problem whether or not he recognized the problems as having a legal aspect or had involved the formal justice system in attempts to resolve the problem. However, justiciable problems exist in the shadow of the law and it seems that people implicitly recognize the legal nature of the problems of every day life, forming perceptions of the fairness of laws and the justice system based on their experience with civil justice problems regardless of whether they actually go the law to resolve the problem. To the extent that this is true, and it appears to be, we have the paradox that people's experience with justiciable problems that are rarely taken to the formal justice system, and perhaps should not be (assuming that they may be more appropriate ways of dealing with them) may still have an impact on their perceptions of the justice system generally. Breton, et. al. assert that "fairness….is a standard in the assessment of laws and regulations, government policies and programs, business practices, job opportunities, and the administration of justice. 'That's not fair' is a definitive condemnation of the state of affairs in any domain of life".[243]

Perceptions of Fairness and Appearing in Court

Having to appear in court or at a tribunal makes a difference in terms of respondents' perceptions of the fairness of Canada's laws and system of justice. People who appeared in court or at a tribunal to resolve their justiciable problems are less favourable toward the justice system than people who do not.

Table 62: Fairness of the Justice System and Appearing in Court
Feel that the Laws and Justice System are Essentially Fair Appeared in Court or at a Tribunal to Resolve Problem Did not Appear at a Court or Tribunal
Strongly Agree 14.2% (40) 17.7% (288)
Somewhat Agree 35.6% (100) 42.1% (685)
Somewhat Disagree 18.9% (53) 16.7% (325)
Strongly Disagree 31.2% (88) 20.3% (331)

c2 = 17.6,p = .008

Combining the two positive response categories, 49.8 per cent of respondents who appeared in court or at a tribunal to resolve their problem felt that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair. This compares with 59.7 per cent who did not use the courts or tribunals.

People who have larger numbers of justiciable problems are less likely to agree that the laws and the justice system are fair declines for number of problems, and this is true for both those who used the courts or tribunals in an attempt to resolve their dispute and those who did not.

Figure 18: Percent Who Feel the Laws and the Justice System Are Fair, by Number of Problems and Appearing in Court or at a Tribunal

Figure 18: Percent Who Feel the Laws and the Justice System Are Fair, by Number of Problems and Appearing in Court or at a Tribunal

[Description]

An interesting aspect of this pattern is that people with only one problem who appeared in court are more likely to judge the laws and the justice system as fair than those who did not use the formal justice system; 76.5 per cent of respondents who used the courts or tribunals compared with 66.8 per cent who did not. The pattern reverses for people with two problems and with three or more problems. A smaller percentage of people with two justiciable problems and who used the formal system in an attempt to resolve their problems, 50.0 per cent, feel that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair compared with those who did not go to the law to resolve their problems, 64.1 per cent. Respondents with three or more problems who used the formal justice system are even less likely to view the laws and the justice system as fair, 45.9 per cent, compared with those who did not use the justice system, 54.9%.[244]

Perceived Fairness of the Law and the Justice System and Problem Outcomes

Problem outcomes also have an effect on respondent's perceptions of the fairness of the laws and the justice system. Outcomes that are perceived to be unfair have a tendency to produce negative attitudes toward the laws and the justice system. As one might expect, respondents who had resolved their problems and for whom the outcome was perceived to be unfair, are more likely to feel that the laws and the justice system are essentially unfair compared with people who resolved their problems with outcomes that they considered fair.

Figure 19: Percent Perceiving that the Laws and the Justice System Are Fair and the Outcome of Resolved Problems

Figure 19: Percent Perceiving that the Laws and the Justice System Are Fair and the Outcome of Resolved Problems

[Description]

The first pair of bars in figure 19 shows the percentage of respondents whose problems were resolved and who felt that the laws and the justice system are fair, comparing those who felt the outcome of the problem was fair or unfair. The pair of bars to the right shows the percentage of respondents with unresolved problems who strongly or somewhat agreed that that the justice system was essentially fair, comparing respondents who said the unresolved problem had become better or worse.[245]

Perceived Fairness of the Law and the Justice System and Assistance With Justiciable Problems

Regardless of the type of assistance received, people are more likely to have positive perceptions about the fairness of the justice system if they feel that the assistance they received was helpful. For three sources of assistance[246], friends and relatives, privately retained lawyers and legal aid offices/law clinics having received assistance that was perceived as helpful is related to a perception that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair. Table 63 summarizes the data, showing the percentages of respondents who feel that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair, comparing respondents who said that the assistance they received was very helpful with those who said the assistance was not helpful at all for the three sources of assistance that produced statistically significant results.

Table 63: Percent of Respondents Who Perceive the Laws and the Justice System As Fair by Helpfulness of Assistance

Assistance From Friends or Relatives[1]
Assistance Very Helpful Assistance Not Helpful at All
66.4% (75) 40% (4)

Assistance From Private Bar Lawyers[2]
Assistance Very Helpful Assistance Not Helpful at All
62.9% (163) 36.7% (25)

Assistance From Legal Aid Offices or Legal Clinics[3]
Assistance Very Helpful Assistance Not Helpful at All
54.6% (18) 22.2 (17)

 

  • [1] c2 = 39.5, p = .0001, Phi = .34
  • [2] c2 = 46.4, p = .0001, Phi = .28
  • [3] c2 = 30.2, p = .01, Phi = .54

Among respondents who received assistance from friends or relatives and who found the assistance very helpful, 66.4 per cent felt that the laws and the justice system are essentially fair. Among respondents who did not find the assistance helpful, only 40 per cent felt that the laws and the justice system are fair. Similarly, 62.9 per cent who received assistance from private lawyers and who found the assistance very helpful felt that the laws and the justice system were essentially fair, compared with 36.7 per cent who said the assistance they received was not helpful at all. The same relationship holds true for people who obtained legal assistance from legal aid offices or legal clinics.


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