Community-Based Access to Justice - Building a Responsive Justice System in New Brunswick

Article excerpt

[Jula Hughes, PH D, delivered these comments at an Access to Justice panel at the University of New Brunswick, on October 28th, 2011. The panel followed the thirty-third Viscount Bennett Lecture by The Honourable Justice Cromwell.]

INTRODUCTION

This paper reports on the formation of a community-based Access to Justice coalition in New Brunswick and suggests that community involvement is crucial to reforming New Brunswick's justice institutions with a view to bringing about a civic-oriented, responsive and accessible justice system in the province. At the time of writing, the Coalition is convened by Gall Wylie and Norm Laverty and supported by the Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada. It includes 34 service and advocacy organizations from every part of the province and provides a forum for networking and policy development in both official languages. In pursuit of its chief goal of Access to Justice, it was invited to propose and has developed and submitted a proposal for a working group on Access to Justice that makes the expertise of its member organizations available to public policy makers and advises the Minister of Justice on an ongoing basis. The proposal is currently being considered by the Minister.

The Origins of the Access to Justice Coalition

In 2007, Fredericton social activist Vaughn Barnett went to jail for 10 days for providing assistance to low-income people with issues related to poverty-law. (1) His imprisonment sent shock-waves through New Brunswick civil society. Volunteers in a number of community organizations that provide services to low-income New Brunswickers felt vulnerable to prosecution by the Law Society. It was clear that the highest court in the province was supporting the stance of the regulator and was not prepared to act to protect those who dedicated their spare time to helping others. This event turned out to be a turning point. Not only did this make people feel vulnerable, it caused citizens who thought of themselves as pillars of the community and proud Canadian citizens to suddenly question the true nature of their society. Was this what the rule of law looked like? Was this justice?

Once these individuals discovered this other side to the place they called home, the questions just kept coming. Why was it that so many people with perfectly run-of-the-mill problems like family breakups, loss of employment, questions about government assistance or rental contracts were unable to access solutions? Why were the courts full of people waiting to have their problems addressed and few people actually found the help they desperately needed? Where was the legal profession in all of this? Why were social workers, police officers and court personnel all behaving as if they existed on different planets? And how real was the danger that Vaughn Barnett's fate could become others' fate if they tried to do their bit to help?

It is important to realize that the people who were engaged were not experienced in being disenfranchised. They brought neither cynicism nor resignation to this turn of events. Instead, they did what those of us with franchise do: they engaged their networks to get to the bottom of what they had just witnessed. The seeds to the Coalition for Access to Justice had been sown.

Access to Justice on the Political Agenda

The Access to Justice crisis was of course well-known to those in power. The provincial attorney general of the day, Liberal MLA, and former and current criminal defence lawyer T.J. Burke was acutely aware that all was not well in New Brunswick's courts and the broader justice system. In a letter to Dr. Chris Levan (2) dated August 7, 2007 he stated that "the issue [of Access to Justice] has been one of our primary concerns in the Office of the Attorney General, since our government took office last year." He was also dedicated to seeing improvement during his mandate. He identified two principal areas that required immediate attention: legal aid and family court. …