Marking Our Report Card – Tell Us What You Think?NSRLP
When the NSRLP Advisory Board met in Windsor two weeks ago, we looked back at our 2015 Strategic Plan (which you can read here) and talked about progress made towards our overarching goal – to raise public and justice system professionals’ awareness of the SRL phenomenon, and its impact on Access to Justice for Canadians.
The NSRLP mandate
Board member and former SRL Jennifer Muller summed up the NSRLP mandate as follows:
“At the heart of our mandate is the intention to challenge the negative stereotype of SRLs. Each project and every interaction that the NSRLP had with anyone this year furthered this important goal of changing how others see and understand SRLs.”
Jennifer pointed out that this meant “building this understanding from the bottom up, beginning with law students.” Law student representative Erin Chesney added:
“We need to focus on law students because they are the future lawyers, judges, and policy makers who will be using and molding the system.”
Sherry MacLennan, BC Legal Services Society’s Director of Public Legal Information and Applications, reflected that this advocacy mandate has evolved to become the centre of the NSRLP mission.
“This realization shapes the work to come.”
How well have we done this year?
In this end-of-year blog, I present some of the themes that emerged during the Board’s discussion in November, including our effort to evaluate the impact that NSRLP has had to date, and where our biggest challenges remain.
The Advisory Board sees this analysis as crucial to directing our resources and influence over the next 12 months. We welcome – and encourage – your feedback.
NSRLP impact in 2015
Board member Justice John Rooke emphasized the impact of the NSRLP on the way that the judiciary understands and relates to SRLs.
“NSRLP has raised the profile of SRLs as a group. This has been helpful in getting all members of the justice community, including the judiciary, to be more focused on the needs and challenges of SRLs. The NSRLP encourages the creation and sharing of resources both to assist SRLs representing themselves in court, and to assist judges, lawyers and other members of the justice community to interact with SRLs in ways that are more effective for both sides of the communication.”
Justice Rooke is working with judicial colleagues on an updated version of the NSRLP publication “Working With Self-Represented Litigants: Ideas and Suggestions From the Bench” which we hope to have ready by Spring 2016.
Sherry MacLennan, BC Legal Services Society’s Director of Public Legal Information and Applications, focused on the work that NSRLP has done in facilitating regular information-sharing on policy initiatives among provincial public legal services, and the impact its legal coaching model has had on the evolution of public legal services.
“Legal aid providers are keenly aware of the needs of SRLs as demand always far outstrips our ability to refer people to lawyers. NSRLP’s commitment to fostering dialogue and collaboration through conference calls has contributed to national-level relationship building and the sharing of critical information and experience. Taking the time to connect in this way has been critical as we innovate to meet SRL needs.
As well, BC Legal Services Society (LSS) was inspired by the NSRLP coaching projects to redesign our Family LawLine on a coaching model, and NSRLP has contributed to the enhancement of many other public legal education and information providers. This year, LSS adapted Coping with the Courtroom for our Family Law Website to meet the needs of our one million-plus annual visitors.”
Board member Rob Harvie QC adds:
“NSRLP has been “punching above its weight” in drawing attention away from what I call the “usual suspects” – lawyers, judges, government administration – and towards the people who really know what they need, that is, the consumers of legal services. This continues to include a tremendous number of unrepresented consumers given voice by our organization. I’m proud to continue that effort in the coming year.”
The Board is keenly aware of the importance of outreach to those as yet unaware of, and unaffected by, the crisis in Access to Justice.
“A bright spot in our 2015 outreach is the opportunity presented by The National’s coverage of these issues (“The New Litigant”, forthcoming on The National, 31/12/15). We hope it will provide a significant impetus for a national conversation about this urgent societal issue and how to move forward with constructive responses.” (Professor Bill Bogart)
Where next in 2016?
Aware of our finite resources, the Board spent some time discussing and debating where NSRLP should direct its energies in 2016. There are many needs. We all agree that NSRLP can be most effective if people really care about Access to Justice – whether they are politicians or members of the public or legal system “insiders”. As Rob Harvie put it:
“There has to be a broader connection that makes the public care. We need to bring Access to Justice to the public agenda.”
Jennifer Muller expanded this point in relation to establishing and nurturing important NSRLP “champions”.
“Meaningful culture change is necessary in order for the justice system to evolve. This means continued efforts to identify more champions willing to support the NSRLP mandate”.
Professors Bill Bogart and Trevor Farrow identified the opportunities presented by the new federal government – “get ‘em while they’re hot” urged Professor Bogart – and in particular the new Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. Professor Farrow asked:
“How do we set out our goals in a manner that can engage the office of (new Minister) Jody Wilson-Raybould?”
Because as Jennifer Muller puts it:
“Without building relationships with government we have little chance of realizing real change.”
Your feedback is welcome
In January 2016 the Project faces a period of adjustment as we say goodbye to Sue Rice, our amazing Project Manager. A team of three law students and Julie will continue to move the work of the NSRLP forward, with assistance from our Board members and in particular, Jennifer Muller who moves into a more active operational role.
I suspect that much will stay the same in 2016 – our focus on SRL advocacy, the development of new SRL resources, our strong support for new models of affordable legal services and more effective public legal services, and our continued efforts to forge relationships with justice system “insiders” or professionals. But each year brings a new set of issues and challenges. We welcome your feedback on our report card and comments on what you want us to focus on in 2016.
I shall leave the last word to Bill Bogart, which I think expresses the heart of NSRLP’s mission and articulates the reason we each remain so committed to this work:
“The phenomenon of SRLs confront us with challenges that go to the heart of civic society. Liberal democracies declare that a fundamental building block is the Rule of Law. Yet, increasingly, that core value is threatened because more and more individuals have inadequate access, or even no access, because they are required by insurmountable circumstances to represent themselves.”