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It’s time Canada make access to justice a reality for all

June 27, 2017

Adrian Di Giovanni

Senior Program Specialist

Lotta Teale

Vivek Maru

CEO, Namati

When a child is denied access to school, or an ailing person is shut out of a hospital, the media are quick to expose the injustice. Denial of health care or an education is unthinkable for most Canadians, yet access to justice, particularly for non−criminal issues, is out of reach for millions in this country, and for billions of people worldwide. Despite the vital need of legal assistance to protect human rights, its absence is rarely remarked upon, its inaccessibility considered merely regrettable.

Legal aid is chronically underfunded in Canada and globally. Traditionally, countries have not invested enough in access to justice in their national plans and budgets, or in international aid to developing countries.

From 2005 to 2013, only 1.8 per cent of aid globally was devoted to justice. Much of that support focused on state institutions in only a small number of countries, largely omitting civil society organizations and their efforts to improve accessibility.

Securing access to justice is integral to development, whether related to health, land, agricultural reforms, urban upgrading and infrastructure, or financial opportunities.

Through our respective organizations_ work, we regularly see the power of basic legal assistance for people living under the most precarious conditions.

In times of humanitarian crisis, simple legal challenges are often overlooked, but their urgency is amplified. This is the case in Jordan, where legal support for Syrian refugees helps families navigate the challenges of obtaining basic documentation, including proof of university studies, which is required for employment.

Frontline justice workers in West Africa are helping communities preserve their livelihoods and cultural ways of life by protecting their land rights. Clan elders in Duah, Liberia, agreed to a potentially devastating land deal with a local investor without consulting the community or its land governance council. However, by employing their recently adopted community by−laws, residents managed to hold their leaders accountable and successfully reversed the land deal.

The demand for access to justice is apparent, and now there is hope that it will gain the attention it deserves.

For the first time, governments the world over have committed to ensuring access to justice in all countries and for all people under the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Providing ordinary citizens with a means to exercise their rights will require greater commitment and co−ordination from national governments and donors. Access to justice components should be included in the efforts of other agencies focused on areas such as health, education, and urban upgrading, to ensure the protection of rights from the outset. This would also be a way to pool much−needed funding across agencies for access to justice efforts.

Currently, there is relatively little tracking of people’s legal needs around the world and few mechanisms to evaluate the cost and effectiveness of different types of legal services. Governments will have to invest more to understand legal challenges faced on a daily basis, and the most direct way to address people’s needs with scarce budgets.

A legal empowerment approach which moves away from courts and litigation to focus instead on people’s ability to resolve problems, often with front−line assistance from non−lawyers, or _community legal advocates has proven a cost−effective way to scale up legal services and to give people much−needed access to their rights.

Justice providers of all stripes will need to adopt a greater entrepreneurial spirit. Lawyers and legal bars, for instance, can play a crucial role in ensuring access to justice for all by supporting new and innovative ways to fund services.

Canada can play a unique leadership role in making the universal commitment to access to justice real, both at home and abroad. Canada has a strong tradition and reputation for human rights promotion and respect for the rule of law, of which access to justice is a key ingredient.

As Global Affairs Canada undertakes the current review of international assistance priorities, there is no better time to reaffirm those commitments, politically and financially. Canada has many important lessons to share across provinces and with other countries about scaling up access to justice. Some of the toughest issues, such as the chronic challenges of reaching remote and excluded groups like Canada’s indigenous and northern populations, could ultimately be the source of greatest insight.

This op-ed was first published in The Hill Times on June 29, 2016.

Adrian Di Giovanni is the Senior Program Specialist for the Law & Development portfolio at IDRC.

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