Has A2J Become a Social Movement?

Has A2J Become a Social Movement?

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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

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Comments (10)

  • Judy Gayton

    Another evolutionary leap that only someone with a very wide view could illuminate. You both framed and pushed the door of the movement -to understand and own itself- wide open.

    We cannot idly wait for justice to fulfill its broken promises. Like everything else, lack of privilege denies us, we have no choice but to re-imagine and mold it into existence, or live with the regret that our lives are made so much less, for the want of it.

    September 5, 2017 at 1:27 pm
  • Cheryl Stephens

    I do think you are a little late to the party. I don’t like the easy dismissal of those dedicated people who have been working, and not isolated, on access to justice for nearly 30 years. The attitudes of the public have been as you say for at least 30 years, it has only recently been of interest to those who collect statistical data.

    The online Access to Justice network has been around since 1990. Once it had federal support and united all interested in informing the public on law and procedure. Public Legal Education Association of Canada (PLEAC) also once add federal support and activities. Many organizations devoted to public legal information and educated were denied federal help under under the Harper regime. The movement was more than decimated, but outposts persist, thanks to its dedicated acolytes.

    To my mind, the governments and lawyers are devoted to adopting technologies that effectively deny access to justice, while declaiming it, to those who have a communication challenge or limited access to technology.

    September 5, 2017 at 2:48 pm
    • sandra olson

      while these organizations were very helpful. now we have a new breed of monster. The procedures that we can and did learn, are not being followed by the courts themselves in order to undermine our cases and get rid of the self represented. So, helpful centre’s that provide information are great,, what we have now, is dishonest, corrupt, government supported actions of the court. Against us,, the public. Information will not help now. When dealing with this sort of behavior, we are going to have to take different tactics. the approach the courts are taking with the public now, are dishonest, and deliberate. secure in the knowledge that the government has their back. And we,,, are the victims of this can of crapola.

      September 6, 2017 at 7:45 pm
  • Charles Shaw

    Thank you for this positive momentum for the SRLs A2J.
    Also thank you for last issue News Letter on Summary Court. The comments from Edmonton in particular, because I had a Summary court last week, So, I learned the real meaning of “Summary Court” last week.
    That was a good proof that said “Some unruly lawyers always won no matter what is the law. the evidences, written or spoken records”. It sure is a shame that has defiled the judicial system, and tarnished the name our beloved nation “CANADA”.
    My question now is what I should do next? Charles

    September 5, 2017 at 7:42 pm
  • tom tupper

    what is a2j ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
    Access to justice will never happen for many of us until the CJC takes complaints about judge corruption-there are NO SCC cases on judge corruption because the courts wont hear them-if you try to fight it you become vexatious
    and the CJC website says they will do nothing about judge revenge if you complain about corruption-trudeau’s father created the CJC in 1971 to prevent us from being able to fight judge corruption.
    An entire segment of the news is missing-judge corruption/case fixing-judges make sure the media don’t report on that-judges/lawyers create the laws which control how rape is prosecuted-a 1% conviction rate proves they don’t want rape prosecuted-why isn’t that a hate crime or a charter violation?
    So the smartest people make sure corruption is impossible to fight with the CJC/vexatious ect laws.
    NO really what is a2j ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    September 6, 2017 at 2:30 am
    • sandra olson

      excellent!!! we all now appear to be on the same page as to the problems, the likelihood of resolving the summary judgement use and vexatious use by the courts,, AND WE ALSO SEEM TO AGREE THAT THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS ALIGNED AND SUPPORTED BY THE GOVERNMENT!! Dear me, it seems we have hit the jackpot here. As we all seem to agree on most issues, the only question is,, what do we do about it, and how. because, no one is coming to save this country from this corruption.

      September 6, 2017 at 6:34 pm
  • Chris Budgell

    This question – about the reality or at least the prospect – of a social movement, gives me an opportunity to air one of the ideas I don’t think I’ve ever previously mentioned.
    I’m not a social movement person. I.E., I don’t attend rallies or protests. But it seems to me that they are what we expect of social movements. And they tend to get media attention only when they reach a certain size, or involve some sort of “civil disobedience”. There is, in theory anyway, an interesting opportunity for civil disobedience that would draw attention to the A2J issue.
    Years before my engagement of the legal system as an SRL I was called upon to perform a unique civic duty that citizens are obliged to perform within the justice system – serve on a jury. The case I sat on was a criminal one. I wish it had been a civil one – ideally something like those I ended up pursuing as an SRL.
    I don’t think I’ll ever be called again to act as a juror. And should that happen I’ll respond to the question put to prospective jurors with my opinion of the courts and the rest of the legal system. Not because I want to avoid doing my duty, but to disclose that I would bring to court a rather different attitude than I did the first time.
    So there’s an opportunity – in theory anyway – to encourage informed citizens (whose numbers hopefully are increasing) to declare that they would bring the same attitude to the role of juror. Or even to go further, and simply declare that they won’t serve as jurors until the legal and political establishments (I’d suggest more specifically our attorneys-general) commit to enabling full public participation in the A2J debate.

    September 6, 2017 at 1:51 pm
  • sandra olson

    there are no comments yet,,, so,, ok, I will go first. YES, we need very much to be a social issue. The lack of access to justice is indeed a social ill that blows very bad wind. Our courts are filled with arrogant insiders who feel that they and only they, should determine who accesses justice and what that even means. I have been actively petitioning the politicians of the day, some names that come to mind are, Justin trudeau, Horgan, david eby, and our politician of the day most likely to be held responsible. The federal attorney general herself. I have made the case that no court should be issuing summary judgements and using definitive terms like vexatious about a litigant,, unless you have all the facts of the case, and it is proven to be without merit, after all the facts are in. not before. Without full disclosure of facts, no one can say anything in the case. you are effectively hog tied. So, dishonest, disreputable lawyers, in collusion with disreputable judges, hide evidence, refuse to disclose, and falsify reports. All to discredit the self represented litigant. The rules of procedure are disbanded and the rules of the court disregarded. The object is not to allow access to justice, but to shame and disparage the character of the self represented. That is the state of our “justice” system now. If ever there is a need for a social issue centered on A2J,,, it is now. Unfortunately, I do not see how we,, the public, can deal with this social issue if the courts are the villians, and they are supported in their villainy by the politicians? If we are to be a social issue,, we are going to have to bypass these monsters,, and go public. Start a discussion directly with the mass world. Let the public see the “real state” of the judicial system and the supportive governments here in Canada. We are NOT the kind and caring country we masquerade to be. And it is about time we started saying so loudly, to the rest of the world. I invite discussion on how to do this.

    September 6, 2017 at 3:04 pm
  • sandra olson

    i should also have mentioned. The courts have for years proclaimed they are getting rid of the heinous self represented as they are wasting the precious resources of the courts. The courts EXIST to serve the public. We are that public. The rules put in place to ensure fairness in the courts disappear, the moment you are self represented. Your issues will be made to appear to be without merit, and you will be swiftly kicked to the curb. Dishonest lawyers will then take whatever money you have, return you file, and insist you go away. as the judge so kindly told you to do anyway. There is no interest in anything you are saying. And all access to the courts, supposedly where justice is to be had, will vanish. That is why it is now if ever, that we need to become more aggressive in our demands for access to justice. If not now,,,then when. once again, I invite discussion on who best to do this.

    September 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm
  • tom tupper

    the only way a SRL will ever get a fair hearing or be able to use the courts is to create our own party-the justice party-on the web read a paper by York university called-is the supreme court of Canada biased in constitutional
    cases-it says once a judge is appointed the judge is invulnerable to any kind of gov action-inc the rcmp for case fixing so SRL’s cant use the courts.
    I was ruled vexatious and summary judgment used when I sued some lawyers-all they did was say I had no claim and then from the lowest court to the SCC the defence lawyers never once gave case law or arguments that I had no claim-only I did-at NSCA/SCC I argued that you the judges are representing the defence and coming up with their arguments/case law-but their arguments were kept a secrete because the judges never gave reasons why I had no claim.
    I complained about 3 SCC judges for representing the defence-I used the CJC letter to dr. Julie Macfarlane feb 27 2015 saying “judges cannot act as an advisor/represent an SRL” but they can I guess represent defence lawyers!!!!!! the CJC dismissed my complaint-there is no law to stop case fixing so the people have to vote to create those laws and the gov would stop that.The final appeal of what some lawyers do will be heard by GOD.

    September 7, 2017 at 3:52 am

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