Public Participation and User Input Into Justice Reform – What are We Afraid Of?

Public Participation and User Input Into Justice Reform – What are We Afraid Of?

Throughout this summer, Sue and I have continued to receive daily emails from self-reps, as well as constant enquiries from system professionals – librarians, policymakers, regulators, advocates – about the Research Report of the SRL Project (Research Report).

It became quickly obvious that in the wake of the original study, there is a role for a national clearinghouse for information and data both about and for SRLs’, as well as a convener for continuing collaboration and dialogue. This will be our work over the coming year – the National Self-Represented Litigants Project  (NSRLP) ( – check out our revamped website) will be officially (re)launched on September 17th.

Over the past few months we have established some important working relationships with dedicated people in the justice system, and appreciate their work and their support for NSRLP. We have also been riding the wave of reactions to the Study results and the Dialogue Event all summer long. These have ranged from strong public affirmation (as Carol Goar at the Toronto Star put it in an email to me following the publication of her columns, “I received an avalanche of email reinforcing your findings”) – to some significant professional backlash (“you are an embarrassment to the profession” – audience feedback from a conference presentation).

We should not be surprised about the defensiveness of some parts of the legal profession when presented with the views of system users (see “Legitimate public concern or lawyer-bashing?” The historical record of the justice system on public consultation is an embarrassment.  Over many decades, members of the legal profession and the judiciary have convinced themselves that the opinion of a “non-lawyer” (which other profession has a special name for people who are not like them?) is worthless/ irrelevant/ sweet, but immaterial.

Such is our unfamiliarity and discomfort with consulting with “non-lawyers” that collaboration with “non-lawyer justice system professionals” (para-legals, social agencies, legal information services) is now frequently regarded as a BIG STEP. Such  collaboration is very important, and we applaud efforts underway across Canada to bring non-lawyer professionals into the discussion, often led by the professional regulator.

However, if including non-lawyer professionals is a big step, expanding consultation to include non-lawyers who are “only” system users remains a RADICAL PROPOSITION in many quarters (with a few important exceptions).

There is an abiding belief that legal experts should not be touched or affected by the opinions of the public, who are, after all, not lawyers. This belief has fueled the development of a culture of entitlement and privilege among some justice system actors about their responsibility to explain themselves and their system to the public. As a consequence, public skepticism about the accountability of lawyers and judges is as low as it is possible to imagine.

We know from the research study (Research Report) that lay members of the public have enormous respect for legal knowledge, and most recognize that they do not possess the experience to take on a lawyering role. They are ready to pay for the expertise of lawyers who will listen to them and help them. But they are also perplexed to find that their opinions – sometimes after months or even years of painful self-education and self-representation – are regarded as irrelevant, embarrassing and even obstructive. The constant theme in the data was “just respect us”.

No one is suggesting that the public should rewrite the justice system (not even the public). All that they – and now we – are saying is that they should at least be able to be a part of this debate (“just respect us”).

The work that we shall undertake in the next 12 months will focus on enhancing the input of system users into justice system reform. We are already running a Speaker’s Bank which matches requests for SRL conference speakers, class guests, working group participants, to SRL’s with whom we have worked and whose information we keep in our (constantly expanding) Project Database. We are very encouraged by the steps taken this summer by some organizations to include SRL’s in the debate over justice system reform. We shall continue to advocate for including the voice of SRL’s on new Access to Justice initiatives in government, law societies, Legal Aid Boards and more.

We welcome the support of everyone, both inside and outside the justice system, to help change the culture around public participation and user input. We shall need all the commitment and smarts we can bring together to change our dismal record on public consultation on justice system reform.

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