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Public faces barriers in accessing Canadian courts, chief justice says

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin delivers a speech at Carleton University in Ottawa on Tuesday, January 31, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The chief justice of Canada's Supreme Court says the legal system risks a loss of public faith unless barriers to public access to the courts, especially for civil matters, are lowered.

Beverley McLachlin issued the warning Saturday during a rare news conference after a speech to the annual conference of the Canadian Bar Association.

"Being able to access justice is fundamental to the rule of law. If people decide they can't get justice, they will have less respect for the law," Chief Justice McLachlin told reporters.

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"They will tend not to support the rule of law. They won't see the rule of law, which is so fundamental to our democratic society, as central and important."

Chief Justice McLachlin said the issue is especially relevant to civil courts, where there are not enough judges, lawyers are expensive – "I am not criticizing that, but it's a fact" – and there are delays.

She said she had no quick-fix answers to the situation, which she described as occurring across western democracies, but called on lawyers, judges and government to unite to deal with the situation. The issue, she noted, is under review by the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, which was created by the Chief Justice and is chaired by Justice Thomas Cromwell. Members of the committee include the Canadian Bar Association, Justice Canada, and the Canadian Judicial Council.

"Nobody's going to solve this alone. There's no magic bullet," she said. "Everyone has to be working together."

She said funding is part of the issue. "Courts have to be adequately staffed. You have to have court clerks; you have to have registrars; you have to have people to run the courtrooms.

"Everybody knows that and that costs some money, but you're providing a public service. Whether it's more or less (money), those are matters I can't get into. I simply say courts have to be staffed. There are many other things that have to be done properly. It's a complex picture."

During her speech, Chief Justice McLachlin talked about some of what she described as the most difficult recent cases that have faced her court, referencing, among others, the Vancouver Safe Injection site appeal.

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In September, 2011, the Supreme Court said , in a unanimous ruling, that the Insite clinic could stay open. The court ordered the federal health minister to grant an immediate exemption to allow its operation.

Asked, during the news conference, if she could elaborate, she chose her words carefully. "It is difficult and it's high profile and it matters a lot, and so it was simply one case that, I think, stood out amongst many in the year."

She was also asked what she would say to those, in B.C. who are upset about the recent sentencing of former RCMP officer Monty Robinson, who received a 12-month condition sentence for obstruction of justice following a 2008 collision with a motorcyclist in Delta, B.C. The motorcyclist was killed..

"Appeal to the Supreme court of Canada," she shot back, noting she could not comment on a specific case.

"There is in place a very good appeal system and an excellent set of courts of appeal across the country. If citizens think that a particular sentence is inappropriate then that is the avenue – at least appeal to the court of appeal. These issues have to be resolved in the court system."

Chief Justice McLachlin, 69 and chief justice since 2000, said she has no plans to retire. Indeed, she said –"Lord willing"– she will be back at next year's bar association meeting in her role.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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