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British Columbia B.C.’s top judge says justice system needs some ‘shock therapy’

Robert Bauman, chief justice of B.C., says the core of Canada’s legal system is worth preserving, but dramatic action is needed to “shake the foundations” and bring in needed reform.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

A dose of "shock therapy" is needed to reform Canada's justice system, which is failing to meet the legal needs of everyday people, British Columbia's top judge says.

Chief Justice Robert Bauman said Wednesday that while the core of the country's legal system is worth preserving, dramatic action is needed to address entrenched problems, from timely access to criminal justice to the cost of legal advice and the challenges around self-representation.

Access to justice goes beyond ensuring people get their day in court, and includes understanding your rights, knowing how to navigate the system and recognizing when you have a legal need in the first place, he said in an interview.

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"Part of the challenge is, is my institution viable?" asked Bauman, who was appointed chief justice in 2013 after serving as head of the B.C. Supreme Court.

"Are we really, apart from government and wealthy individuals and corporations, able to resolve disputes for most people? Are they able to get to us?

"We've got to shake the foundations enough to question those usual assumptions and be open to changing them from the ground up."

Talk of reform has been gaining traction in recent years, culminating with last year's landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada that set time limits on bringing someone accused of a crime to trial. The ruling pointed to a "culture of complacency" and highlighted the need for efforts from everyone in the justice system to speed up the legal process.

"It got our attention," Bauman said about the ruling.

"We're not the donkey and it's not the two-by-four, but it's necessary to get the attention of the players and to bring home to them the significance of the underlying problems."

A society that values the rule of law as a bedrock of democracy but has so many people with unmet legal needs is not sustainable, he added.

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Bauman said he is heartened about a recent announcement that the province's law society and law foundation have each pledged $150,000 over three years for Access to Justice B.C., which he chairs. The organization is a discussion group that includes not only lawyers and judges but also representatives of First Nations' groups, health-care workers, municipal leaders, business people, self-represented litigants and immigrants.

The bulk of the funding will go towards hiring a co-ordinator to keep the organization on track, he said.

Bauman commended the resilience and overall effectiveness of Canada's system of law and spoke optimistically about the prospect of reform.

"The people who say it's hopelessly broken are wrong. It's not," he said during the interview at his office in downtown Vancouver.

"I understand the cynicism and the sense of frustration with the problem. And I understand why some people think it's intractable. It's so large. It's so deeply rooted," he added.

"But the fact is, at the end of the day we've got something worthwhile preserving."

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