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Canada Federal government donates $5-million to fund aimed at improving access to justice system

Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin, the first woman to hold this position, and the longest serving chief justice of Canada in history, at her office on Dec 11 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian government has given a one-time grant of $5-million to a new fund aimed at improving access to the justice system, in the name of retired Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin.

Ms. McLachlin, Canada’s longest-serving Supreme Court chief justice, said when she retired two years ago that she wished to continue to push for improved access to justice for all children, women and men in Canada. She defined access to justice as “a broad term that covers delays, costs, anything that prevents people from getting ready access to justice.”

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin Access to Justice Fund has a goal of $10-million, and has received additional pledges from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and several major law firms. The fund’s trustee is the Vancouver Foundation, which was started in 1943 by a secretary who, according to the foundation’s website, wished to help homeless women escape the poverty cycle.

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The fund’s purpose is to support innovative projects from organizations or individuals that offer practical solutions aimed at improving Canadians’ access to justice.

The fund’s founding governors include Ms. McLachlin and her former Supreme Court colleague Thomas Cromwell, along with Yves Fortier, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, former B.C. Supreme Court judge Bruce Cohen, former federal cabinet minister John Manley, and Richard Pound, a former vice-president of the International Olympic Committee.

As chief justice, Ms. McLachlin wrote a majority ruling in 2014 in which the court found a constitutional right to access to justice. The ruling came in a case in which a woman could not afford the administrative court fees of $3,600 for a 10-day trial in a child-custody dispute. The court ruled the B.C. fees illegal. She also created a committee led by Justice Cromwell to make recommendations to improve access to justice in civil and family law matters. Federal justice department data from 2012 show that 40 to 57 per cent of litigants in family-related cases are not represented by legal counsel.

Ms. McLachlin was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1989 by Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. In 2000, a Liberal prime minister, Jean Chrétien, named her chief justice. She took part in groundbreaking rulings, such as the legalization of assisted dying, and the first case to declare an Indigenous group held title over certain lands.

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