Has A2J Become a Social Movement?NSRLP
If A2J is a social movement, its identity and solutions will reflect the needs of users, not just the views of professionals
The milestone that Labour Day represents seems a good time to take stock – and to look forward.
This is a time of familiar rituals: schools back in session, evenings getting darker, people drifting back from vacations, and that chilled-out summer feeling is starting, sadly, to ebb away.
Its seems a good time to broach a big question.
Has A2J become a social movement?
I just counted (on my fingers, where I do most of my math). This is my sixth summer working on Access to Justice issues, and in particular the self-representation phenomenon. The sixth time I have headed into fall engrossed in and preoccupied by this work.
I am not alone in my preoccupation. A quick glance at our Twitter feed (@ProfJulieMac) shows the large and growing attention paid to A2J, constant new initiatives, research, and programs.
A social or political issue that claims “movement” status moves from the consciousness of a few dedicated acolytes – what sociologist Ralph Turner evocatively described as “the quixotic efforts of imaginative individuals” – to a widely-recognized cause, a collectivity.
The A2J collective may be diverse, but it shares some common goals and values. First, people are united in belief in the need for comprehensive change. The current system is not working. There is a growing cohort of passionate, strategic and intelligent A2J advocates – many of them former SRLs, who were shocked and changed by their experiences with the Canadian justice system – across Canada.
A social or political issue that claims “movement” status is one that affects a larger and larger number of people as time goes on and consciousness is raised. It is now increasingly common for a lack of Access to Justice to be either part of someone’s direct experience, or the experience of someone they know (and care about). Unlike six years ago, these days when I talk to journalists I spend less time explaining the SRL phenomenon, and more time listening to their story of the person or people they know who also went through an experience of self-representing.
I can’t prove in any scientific way that A2J is becoming a social movement. And perhaps my hunch is premature. Perhaps it is only because I work alongside so many people whose lives have been diminished by their lack of access to justice that I believe this.
But if I am wrong, then this much is unassailable: A2J is a great deal closer to being a social movement – a nationally recognized issue and a collectivity of voices for change – than it was six years ago.
And that means that it is time to anticipate the difference this makes.
What does it mean if A2J is a social movement?
- It changes what we understand “A2J” to mean
If A2J is a social movement, it will be increasingly defined by those who experience it, rather than by academics, researchers, lawyers or judges.
Back in the day, “Access to Justice” was just a government buzzword that didn’t really need to have a concrete or realistic meaning – until more and more SRLs began coming to court.
In the 2013 SRL Study, service providers and court officers complained to me with understandable exasperation that the constant references on ministry and court websites to “Access to Justice” and “an accessible justice system” had raised consumer expectations to an unmanageable level:
“They (SRLs) think they can do it because we claim this access to justice bullshit.”
And as the 2013 National SRL Study also revealed, many SRLs were discovering the BS factor first-hand:
“No more fairy tale about having access to a justice system”.
A 2014 public survey conducted by Trevor Farrow and colleagues at Osgoode Hall Law School showed that the public was no longer persuaded by the A2J claim. Members of the public told Farrow and his co-researchers that they understood Access to Justice as having both substantive and procedural dimensions – and that it must be procedurally possible in order to be meaningful.
For this, they pointed out, money and class are often dispositive.
Because the present legal system usually requires legal expertise in order to achieve A2J, the A2J “problem” has historically been defined as a lack of affordable legal expertise.
But as the A2J “problem” gets redefined by users, the legal profession will find both its grip on the problem and its jurisdiction over solutions loosening.
- The solutions to the A2J crisis must be shaped by user experiences
NSRLP has been pushing for authentic public participation in justice reform since 2013 (one example: Rob Harvie’s “audit” of the provinces’ willingness to engage with system users).
The level of institutional resistance to genuinely listening to members of the public, and including their voices before and during development of new programming and initiatives, continues to amaze me.
While there are some signs that we are moving past the “welfare queen” caricature of SRLs (crazy/ lazy/ stupid/ disruptive), there is little evidence of much more than lip service to “listening to the public”. Many conferences now involve earnest debate on including user perspectives – but omit to include any actual users.
If A2J is becoming a social movement, the solutions will not be controlled by insiders, but will flow from the experiences and the needs of the users of justice services. It will no longer be enough to pay lip-service to this idea, and then when the time comes for decision-making, retreat into private sessions of like-minded professionals. The uncomfortable, inconvenient demands and the (sometimes angry) voices of the public must be part of the solution, whether we professionals like it or not.
It has never been more urgent for the legal establishment to get with the program here. Ignore the A2J advocates at your peril. You might find they start to bypass you (and get the ear of politicians).
- The solutions to the A2J crisis will go beyond anything the legal profession can offer alone
Which brings me to a critical point. The goal of A2J as a social movement is not the rebranding of the legal profession, but the realization of actual access to justice systems and services.
I remain convinced that lawyers can be a force for good, and should be part of the solution. But justice reform will include flipping the traditional hierarchy of lawyer/client.
System change will create new processes and new forms of expertise and assistance for users that are not conventionally “legal”. It will inevitably allow users more control over decision-making, including their personal limits for expenditure and life disruption, and what an adequate resolution looks like.
The legal profession has, with honorable exceptions, mostly stuck its head in the sand as the numbers of ordinary Canadians who cannot afford legal services has exploded until they dwarf the number of institutional and corporate players who can.
It may now reap what it has sown. System users are not convinced that the only or the best solution to the A2J crisis is more people paying for more lawyers. Try explaining to your neighbour or co-worker that the legal profession controls legal services in a monopoly, has priced service out of reach of most Canadians, resents self-represented litigants and strategizes to defeat them, and now claims that maintaining the status quo is all about “protecting the public.” Good luck with that.
But the start of the school year also brings a new generation of eager first year law students. Along with their peers who are just getting called to the Bar, here are the lawyers of the future. They will need to share power in the Access to Justice movement with members of the public and system users. They will need to accept that while lawyers can be part of the solution, they are not the solution. And they need to listen to and work alongside smart, motivated, committed A2J advocates of all stripes.
Because when Access to Justice becomes a social movement, users and legal professionals will collaborate to build solutions beyond our existing imagination, unconstrained by either professional protectionism or the power of the status quo.