Dear NSRLP Advisory Board…A Letter From a SRLNSRLP
Last week we received the following letter from SRL Jan Steen. As you will read below, Jan had just concluded a seven-year legal action as a SRL. He sent his letter to be shared with the NSRLP Advisory Board, and below three of our Board members write back to Jan, acknowledging the difficulty and frustration of the SRL experience and describing how NSRLP is committed to working on answers in collaboration with other justice system players.
We are publishing Jan’s letter and personal responses from individual Board members to underscore NSRLP’s commitment to engaging with the public and advocating for the inclusion of a consumer voice in justice system reform. The conversation below just scratches the surface of what could be achieved from a real public dialogue on A2J in Canada.
Dear Julie and Sue,
This morning I received the NSRLP’s 2014 Annual Report. Thank you.
Also this week, exactly seven years to the day since I first signed a contract with the firm who were to become the defendants in my lawsuit, I signed a final release. They clearly won the battle. Reflecting on my seven years pre-occupation, I am still groping to understand what I thought I was fighting for – justice? I had a telephone conversation with a respected US lawyer some months ago. He told me: “Jan, the courts are not about justice.”
NSRLP Advisory Board member Sherry MacLennan writes:
I am sure you were fighting for justice – that is a powerful motivator and an important value. A belief in the importance of justice keeps many of us motivated in our work to make the system better for everybody – not just those who have access to skilled litigators. While I believe the courts can be about justice, there are many constraints– complex and historical rules of court and of evidence that while intended to help achieve justice, can undermine it when one is self-represented (you talk about this problem below). Justice is more likely to be achieved when the playing field is even.
It seems to me that when you are on your own, the playing field is not even. That is why we are working to increase real and practical assistance to SRLs both at the Legal Services Society and at NSRLP.
(Sherry MacLennan is the Director of Public Legal Information and Applications at the British Columbia Legal Services Society)
I have been trying to make sense of the obsession that kept me so doggedly tearing away at these matters, in order by making a sensible account of the thousands of hours, the financial costs, and the myriad emotions I now realize were all for naught; so that I might recover the sanity I require in order to move on. I had been advised on countless occasions, both by my close family as well as friends, that life is short; that I was wasting my time and energy. An early ‘closure’ should have been based on such insight and wisdom. I appreciate some of you may see me as a SRL with some screws loose…but really my question to you is the one I believe shared by many other SRLs – as we doggedly persist, has nothing been gained? Should I never have begun this journey? And is that what we should be telling other people about the justice system in Canada?
Jennifer Muller, NSRLP Advisory Board member writes:
You are not alone in your attempt to make sense of your journey into our legal system. I think it is common for SRLs to try to understand what led them to venture into our legal system, invest everything they have in their personal quest for justice, only to find themselves emotionally and financially depleted and needing to make sense of the experience.
I believe you have gained something that is more valuable than recouping financial costs or the lost hours spent trying to desperately fight for something that was dear to you. The very sanity that you want to recover now that your case is “over” may have been irrevocably lost if you had never pursued your legal matter. How could you go to court without a lawyer? Why would you put yourself through such anguish and difficulty? Why are you doing this? These are common questions that SRLs face from their families and friends and the answer to these questions is most often: How could I not?
You couldn’t turn away from this legal case because it mattered deeply to you and you were willing to pursue justice at all costs. Perhaps the outcome of the legal battle is not nearly as important as the journey. The story of your personal journey through our legal system as a SRL is of value and is evidence that the justice system in Canada is one in dire need of change.
(Jennifer Muller is a former SRL and a District Counsellor for the North Vancouver School Board)
My experience has taught me that before there is “commitment to advancing access to justice in Canada” the “urgency of system change” must occur at the very core of the system. For me this means that before there is better access to procedure, we must make sense of the Rules. Any system created and governed by its employed participants is bound to raise barriers for outsiders. Over the last seven years I have experienced numerous examples of permitted anomalies and what seemed to me to be apparently illegal behavior by the legal system. In the end, I feel that the system managed to devour me and then spit me out, after a tedious and long-drawn game.
Bill Bogart, NSRLP Advisory Board members writes:
Your comments capture an ongoing tension in the justice system. On the one hand, we want the courts and their procedures to be open to all at low cost. On the other we want the procedures to promote thorough investigation of the issues and all relevant and reliable evidence to be placed before the judge deciding the case. Those two goals are often incompatible. And you are right: the balance shouldn’t be determined only by those beholden to the system.
Rules reform is a big part of enhancing A2J in Canada. We have struggled with this for too long without real results and now SRLs like yourself are asking that we do better. I can guarantee you that the NSRLP will keep pushing to have the concerns you express – which we hear a lot – heard and properly responded to in these debates.
(Professor Bill Bogart is Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at the University of Windsor)