Academic journal article The High Court Quarterly Review

The Challenges We Face

Academic journal article The High Court Quarterly Review

The Challenges We Face

Article excerpt

More than a quarter century ago, a Canadian Justice Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, challenged Canadians to build "the just society". In the ensuing years, thousands of Canadians have worked to establish their visions of a just society. The centrepiece of Prime Minister Trudeau's vision of the just society was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, and whose 25h anniversary we will celebrate in April 17, 2007. Whatever our political persuasion or our particular conception of justice, there can be no doubt that Canadians today expect a just society. They expect just laws and practices. And they expect justice in their courts.

Today, I would like to share with you my perspective on justice in our courts and the challenges we face in assuring Canadian men, women and children a just and efficacious justice process.

Let me begin by asserting that Canada has a strong and healthy justice system. Indeed, our courts and justice system are looked to by many countries as exemplary. We have well-appointed courtrooms, presided over by highly qualified judges. Our judges are independent and deliver impartial justice, free of fear and favour. The Canadian Judicial Council, which I head, recently issued an information note on the judicial appointments process in which it affirmed these long-standing principles on which our justice system is based. Canadians can have confidence that judges are committed to rendering judgment in accordance with the law and based on the evidence. Corruption and partisanship are non-issues. In all these things, we are fortunate indeed.

Yet, like every other human institutional endeavour, justice is an ongoing process. It is never done, never fully achieved. Each decade, each year, each month, indeed each day, brings new challenges. Canadian society is changing more rapidly than ever before. So is the technology by which we manage these changes. Thus it should not come as a surprise that Canada's justice system, in 2007, faces challenges. Some represent familiar problems with which we have yet to come to grips. Others arise from new developments, and require new answers.

In my comments today I will touch on four such challenges:

$ the challenge of access to justice, $ the challenge of long trials, $ the challenge of delays in the justice system, and $ the challenge of dealing with deeply rooted, endemic social problems.

The Challenge of Access to Justice

The most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve. Access to justice is therefore critical. Unfortunately, many Canadian men and women find themselves unable, mainly for financial reasons, to access the Canadian justice system. Some of them decide to become their own lawyers. Our courtrooms today are filled with litigants who are not represented by counsel, trying to navigate the sometimes complex demands of law and procedure. Others simply give up. Recently, the Chief Justice of Ontario stated that access to justice is the most important issue facing the legal system (2).

The Canadian legal system is sometimes said to be open to two groups--the wealthy and corporations at one end of the spectrum, and those charged with serious crimes at the other. The first have access to the courts and justice because they have deep pockets and can afford them. The second have access because, by and large, and with some notable deficiencies, legal aid is available to the poor who face serious charges that may lead to imprisonment. To the second group should be added people involved in serious family problems, where the welfare of children is at stake; in such cases the Supreme Court has ruled that legal aid may be a constitutional requirement. (3)

It is obvious that these two groups leave out many Canadians. Hard hit are average middle-class Canadians. They have some income. They may have a few assets, perhaps a modest home. …

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