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Civil justice system seen as catering to the rich Add to ...

Individuals on modest incomes see the civil justice system as an unwieldy, inaccessible institution that caters to the rich - and the legal profession is trying to do something about it.

A new report revealed on Monday that Ontarians are fast losing faith in their civil justice system. In a simultaneous, related event, a $14.6-million legal project was launched to improve access to civil justice.

"For the hundreds of thousands of Ontarians who need help with a civil legal issue, the system is poorly understood or perceived to be inaccessible by many," said the Report of the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project.

It found that most litigants despair of obtaining legal aid for a civil matter - such as family disputes and wills - and either retain a private lawyer or go to court unrepresented.

The situation is particularly dire in the family law field, where, the report said, there was a 29-per-cent decrease in family lawyers willing to take legal aid cases between 2000 and 2007.

The report was prepared by former chief justice of Ontario Roy McMurtry; former Ontario attorney-general Marion Boyd; John McCamus, chair of Legal Aid Ontario; and University of Toronto law professor Lorne Sossin.

Meanwhile, a national group of law foundations that is administering the new, $14.6-million Access to Justice Fund put out a call for proposals for programs.

Mark Sandler, chair of the Law Foundation of Ontario, said that fund will focus on aboriginal people, self-represented litigants, linguistic minorities, people living in remote areas and those involved in family violence or consumer action.

"The need is great, and we are trying to find as many access to justice projects as we can," Mr. Sandler said in an interview.

The money came from a settlement last year of a major class action that had pitted a group of account holders against Toronto Dominion Bank. An Ontario judge approved a plan that streamed unclaimed money into the law foundations.

Mr. Sandler said the recent recession depleted a great deal of the law foundation's annual budget. However, he said, it has guaranteed that funding will not be cut to a core group of organizations, including the Ontario Justice Education Network and the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

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