By Brea Lowenberger, Access to Justice Coordinator
College of Law, University of Saskatchewan
The Dean’s Forum on Dispute Resolution and Access to Justice (the Dean’s Forum) was a joint initiative created in 2013 between the then Dean of the College of Law and Deputy Minister of Justice in response to national calls to action to improve access to justice across Canada. The Dean’s Forum engages justice community stakeholders in Saskatchewan in a dialogue about access to justice and the future of the legal system. A law school course associated with the Dean’s Forum was created in 2014, unique to the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, which offers upper-year law students a rare experiential learning opportunity to develop justice policy alongside leading members of the legal profession. Hired in October 2015 as the Access to Justice Coordinator, I have a mandate to lead law students through the Dean’s Forum course; to collaborate with justice system stakeholders to implement recommendations, as appropriate, from Dean’s Forum meetings; and to coordinate the new Saskatchewan Access to Justice Working Group. An annual meeting of the Dean’s Forum has been held since 2013.
The calls to action to improve access to justice – most notably in Access to Civil and Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change (2013) (A Roadmap for Change), by the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, led by Justice Cromwell of the Supreme Court of Canada; and in the Reaching Equal Justice Report (2013) (Reaching Equal Justice), by the Canadian Bar Association – highlight the disproportionate amount of unmet legal needs in Canada. Specifically, the National Action Committee reported in A Roadmap for Change that in Canada, more than 20% of the public does not take action with respect to their legal problems, and that more than 65% think that nothing can be done – i.e. the public is “uncertain about their rights, do not know what to do, think it will take too much time, cost too much money or are simply afraid” (A Roadmap for Change at 4). Chief Justice McLachlin has further highlighted that the amount of unmet legal needs in Canada has become vast and commonplace, noting that, “Among the hardest hit are the middle class. They earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but frequently not enough to retain a lawyer for a matter of any complexity or length” (ibid at 29). The disproportionate amount of unmet legal needs creates an opportunity to introduce creative solutions. For example, both national reports state that services performed by non-lawyer legal service providers should be considered and developed as a way to improve access to justice (see e.g. ibid at 14 and Reaching Equal Justice at 95).
So, given the identified issue and opportunity, law students in the 2015 offering of the Dean’s Forum course researched and conducted consultations to develop a policy discussion paper and a presentation on the topic of introducing paralegals/non-lawyer legal service providers into the Saskatchewan legal market. The students’ work leading up to and during the meeting day provided a foundation for the Dean’s Forum participants’ discussions. The students’ paper and topics of discussion during the meeting day considered areas such as education, regulation, scope of practice, and how to make space for paralegals/non-lawyer legal service providers within the legal community in the Saskatchewan context. There were common themes that emerged from the Dean’s Forum meeting day discussions:
The participants at the meeting of the Dean’s Forum were mostly supportive of the development of alternative modes of service delivery through introducing non-lawyer legal service providers into the Saskatchewan market, with consideration of the “themes” identified above. Representatives from the Law Society and Ministry of Justice indicated they would support the ongoing consultation of the non-lawyer legal service provider initiative – and since the meeting, they have done just that, to bring the initiative to the current consultation stage.
As previously blogged about on Legal Sourcery and reported on in the Regina Leader Post, the Law Society and Ministry of Justice have released a consultation paper, and conducted surveys for (i) legal service providers; and (ii) members of the public, to help determine whether there is a need to expand the scope of non-lawyer legal service providers. As the consultation paper attests, the delivery of legal services by non-lawyers is not a new idea, but one that is currently being considered across and beyond North American jurisdictions, and has already been implemented in jurisdictions such as British Columbia and Ontario. The Law Society and Ministry of Justice have indicated that despite the existence of non-lawyer legal service providers in other jurisdictions, they have no preconceived ideas about the initiative. The next steps will be considered after the survey results have been reviewed.
The non-lawyer legal service provider topic is just one example of how the Dean’s Forum initiative has provided a space for discussing justice system reform aimed at improving accessibility for Saskatchewan residents, supported by law student research that can have significant impact. For more information about the Dean’s Forum or the Saskatchewan Access to Justice Working Group, please contact me at email@example.com.