An international finding that Canada ranks poorly when it comes to access to the courts should serve as a wake up call to the entire justice system, says Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
Speaking to the annual Canadian Bar Association conference today, Chief Justice McLachlin said that Canada placed ninth in a recent ranking of 12 European and North America countries.
The finding - by the World Justice Institute - underlines the fact that justice is increasingly available only to the wealthy or small minority who are so poor that they qualify for legal aid programs, she said.
"This is not terrible, but it shows that we are not doing as well as we should," Chief Justice McLachlin said. "I think the Canadian Bar Association and other groups concerned about justice have to recognize that this is an area in our justice system that needs attention."
Chief Justice McLachlin said that the finding on access contrasted sharply with another finding that, when it comes to the overall quality of justice dispensed by the courts, Canada ranks very favourably when compared to 62 other nations.
She urged the legal profession to move forward swiftly with programs aimed at promoting access to the courts, including free "diagnosis" of legal problems, subdividing complex cases to make them more affordable and providing services pro bono.
Chief Justice McLachlin also recommended the expansion of legal insurance schemes.
Those who cannot get legal help to fight criminal charges tend to get the most public attention, she said. However, ordinary citizens who suffer a personal injury, need to draft a will or encounter. mortgage problem frequently have trouble obtaining legal advice, Chief Justice McLachlin said.
"They feel they cannot take the step of finding a lawyer or launching a lawsuit or doing whatever is necessary to protect their legal rights," she said. "They fear expense. They fear delay.
"In the family area, they can get mired in processes that actually exacerbate the dispute and have bad consequences for the children involved and for preserving as much of the family assets as can be preserved," Chief Justice McLachlin said.
She specifically commended the CBA for a strong position it has adopted in relation to governments that have allowed legal aid funding to fall further and further behind demand.
Without confidence that they can gain access to the courts, public support for the justice system could erode, Chief Justice McLachlin warned.
She also told the CBA members that the Supreme Court will hear about 80 cases this year, an increase of about 10 over annual totals in the past couple of years.
She said that those seeking leave to appeal lower court judgments has also climbed, providing heartening proof that litigants see the Court as potentially accessible and responsive.
About 75 per cent of the judgments released by the Supreme Court rulings were unanimous, she added.
"This is a higher percentage for a court of final appeal," Chief Justice McLachlin said. "Usually, courts of final appeal are down around 50 per cent or sometimes lower, given the difficult, divisive issues they deal with."
Chief Justice McLachlin also thanked the CBA today for vocally supporting the judiciary when it was attacked last winter by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for making findings in favour of refugee claimants.
She said that judges cannot speak out when they are attacked, which leaves them largely reliant on the bar to defend them when there are attacks on their integrity.
"Its good to see our legal institutions making sure that the public recognizes the need for an independent judiciary," she said.