“Let me start by saying that the problem of access to justice is not a new one. As long as justice has existed, there have been those who struggled to access it. But as Canadians celebrated the new millennium, it became clear that we were increasingly failing in our responsibility to provide a justice system that was accessible, responsive and citizen-focused. Reports told us that cost, delays, long trials, complex procedures and other barriers were making it impossible for more and more Canadians to exercise their legal rights.”– The Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C. (Chief Justice of Canada); A Roadmap for Change
As it has become increasingly apparent that barriers in accessing justice continue to exist, the focus has shifted to how we as legal professionals can change this. A Roadmap to Change (2013) proposed six guiding principles to change, which included: the need to put the public first and adopt a user-centred approach, to collaborate and coordinate amongst the justice system and legal stakeholders, to prevent disputes and educate, to simplify the processes, to take action and to focus on outcomes.
While there have been many initiatives over the years to increase access, from connecting families to proper resources during separation to unbundling legal service fees, one of the most (arguably) ambitious and intriguing contemporary undertakings in advancing access has been online dispute resolution (ODR).
ODR was designed to address major barriers of access such as cost of legal fees, time spent in court, and distance in travelling to physical courts. The basic premise of ODR is to allow users to settle disputes without ever needing to go to court; they can do it online at home or at a library. In doing so, it encourages problem solving between people rather than viewing a situation from an adversarial approach.
This type of dispute resolution has been gaining traction worldwide. In British Columbia, the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) is unprecedented in its integration of ODR into the Canadian justice system. The CRT allows users to find information and legal tools using their free Solution Explorer Tool. Users can then apply to settle their dispute using a negotiation platform – if this fails, it proceeds to the next stage where a case worker will try and help settle the dispute. If it is not possible, then a tribunal member will decide the outcome of the case; this outcome acts similar to a court order. So far, eligible claims include small claims up to $5000, strata disputes, and Motor Vehicle Accident disputes, but it is continuing to expand to different areas of the law.
The UK government is pursuing a similar take on advancing access by creating an Online Court system. They have spent over £ 1 billion in this pursuit after the HM Courts & Tribunals Service advocated for modernizing the courts by implementing new technology in 2016. There has been some hitches in the plans, such as the timeline for this implementation being changed and funding gaps, but overall the results look promising, with people being able to file divorce claims online, pursue civil money claims, and file low-level offence appeals. Indeed, it is claimed that they will have 100 services available online by 2020, but with the time delays this deadline may have to be more flexible.
Australia launched a pro bono portal called JusticeConnect which brings together legal organizations and stakeholders in hopes of helping users that need legal help as well as stakeholders trying to assist clients. It includes an intake tool, a referral tool, and a pro bono portal, all accessible online.
These exciting developments are only the beginning. The legal system, long steeped in tradition, has been in desperate need of modernization as the world has technologically advanced around it. This much needed change will only continue to grow, and in turn it will provide better access to the justice system for those who have been snubbed by it for so long.