What Does Access to Justice Mean for David Eby?

"As Attorney General, my goal is that every person in British Columbia is able to quickly and efficiently resolve their legal disputes, in a system that is fair, just and comprehensible. "

What Does Access to Justice Mean for David Eby?

Access to justice includes not just issues around legal aid or courtroom space. True access to justice includes understanding and removing or mitigating social, economic and bureaucratic barriers, and supporting people to resolve disputes outside of formal court processes where appropriate.

Our motivation for taking on these issues should be apparent to everyone involved in BC’s legal system: unresolved legal problems and barriers to justice can adversely affect people’s physical, mental and emotional health, their finances, their relationships, their families, and often the public purse.

The scope of our access to justice challenge is underlined by the fact that our justice system is one of the few social services that government, regardless of political stripe, has a constitutional obligation to fund. This has meant that people too often have been forced to turn to the courts to resolve complex personal problems because of a failure to harness proactive social programs to address the upstream issues that caused these problems.

Mental health challenges, addiction problems, homelessness, and family breakdowns are just a few examples of the upstream issues that fill our courtrooms, despite the fact that they are mostly grossly ill-suited to resolution in front of a judge.

The same principle underlies the challenges in our healthcare system’s emergency rooms as compared to implementation of an effective public health program. For example, I understand that the First Nations Health Council has done extensive work on the “social determinants of health,” recognizing the many interdependent aspects of health and wellness.

There are “social determinants of justice” as well. Access to justice is not solely about legal issues. Everyone is impacted when British Columbians face barriers in accessing justice, or are forced into ill-suited justice processes to address upstream challenges.

The social determinants of justice extend to issues of physical and mental health, housing, poverty, racism, substance misuse, and family resiliency. There is ample evidence to support the crucial role of upstream services in eliminating downstream consequences for society.

Our government has been working hard to improve access to social services like housing, mental health and addiction treatment, and childcare to minimize the risk of families facing these problems becoming involved in the justice system.

Beyond the upstream issues, over the past year, I have heard from thousands of British Columbians about their needs and frustrations with the justice system, especially regarding access, cost, and options for dispute.

I have made it my ministry’s mission to respond to access to justice challenges, including through:

  • Re-establishing the BC Human Rights Commission;
  • Supporting and delivering alternative dispute resolution options to improve services for families, legal services for Indigenous persons, and expanded poverty law services;
  • Working with the BC Aboriginal Justice Council and Indigenous organizations to develop an Indigenous Justice Strategy that sets out principles for future justice programs, with the goal of reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in jails, prisons, and foster homes, and meaningful initiatives and priorities that improve the justice experience of Indigenous people in BC; and,
  • Developing a family justice transformation strategy that promotes improved access to justice by identifying and addressing needs at the front end and encouraging the use of consensual dispute resolution processes.

To illustrate the breadth of the access to justice issues in our province, I offer two examples of planned reforms: one legislative, and one in cooperation with our partners in the wider justice system.

First, as Attorney General, it is my role to ensure that our government adheres to the rule of law and part of this involves ensuring public service employees can report serious wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.

On April 25th, our government introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act (2018), long-overdue legislation aimed at protecting whistleblowers in our public sector. It will enable concerned public servants to report serious wrongdoing to their supervisor, a designated person within government, or the Ombudsperson. It’s one more way to enhance accountability, transparency, and higher standards of public administration that British Columbians can count on.

Second, a priority of mine is to encourage diversity in the legal profession and especially within
the judiciary. A judiciary that reflects the diversity of our province’s citizens can facilitate access to justice by incorporating the unique voices of those who are under-represented as leaders and administrators in the system. This is not something that can be changed by passing a law – this is an access issue that every player in the system has a role in addressing.

Improving access to justice, likewise, cannot be done in isolation – seriously addressing this problem means considering upstream issues and addressing the challenges in our laws, structures, and our province that have shown up in our legal system.

One year into my mandate, I am grateful for the continued support of those involved in our legal system in addressing these challenges.