Nearly half of Canadians are choosing to represent themselves at trial because of steep legal fees, creating a lack of acceptable representation, the country's top judge said Saturday.

Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada said the right to a fair trial was not a reality for the average Canadian because of prohibitively high legal fees. On some days, she said, up to 40 per cent of the litigants judges see have opted to proceed without a lawyer.

"In order to maintain confidence in our legal system, that system must be, and must be seen to be, accessible to all Canadians— not just large corporations, not just people charged with serious crimes," McLachlintold the Canadian Bar Association's annual conference in St. John's N.L.

The growing trend of self-representation is also putting great strain on the judicial system, she said, with the courts acting as both lawyer and judge.

"These are people who come to court without legal representation and sometimes without any legal advice, so the judge is faced with telling them what the law is, telling them what procedures are available to them, and trying to help that person while remaining as an impartial arbiter," McLachlin said.

Compounding the issue is Canada's current shortage of judges, McLachlin said.There are currently 43 vacancies on federally appointed courts, andMcLachlin estimated one judge would have to be appointed each week to keep up with retirements and the backlog of cases.

"Rather than let things get so bad and then have a big push to make a lot of appointments and sit back and say, `Well, now we've done our job,' the job is never done," she said at a news conference after her speech. "You've just got to continue to do it on an ongoing basis."

McLachlin, appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in January 2000, is the first woman to hold the highest judicial appointment in the country.

With files from the Canadian Press