'Justice shouldn't be decided based on where you live': Report finds unequal access to legal services

Legal services need to be easier to navigate, more community-driven and more co-ordinated with each other in order to reach the many Manitobans who don't have equal access to justice, according to a new report.

Rural residents, Indigenous people, newcomers among underserved: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

The author of a new report on access to justice in Manitoba says many groups are underserved, including Indigenous people, newcomers and female victims of family violence. (CBC)

Legal services need to be easier to navigate, more community-driven and more co-ordinated with each other in order to reach the many Manitobans who don't have equal access to justice, according to a new report.

"[Something] that I thought really jumped out to us in our research is this idea that justice shouldn't be decided based on where you live, who you are or how much money you have," said Allison Fenske, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Centre.

Fenske is the co-author of the report Justice Starts Here: A One-Stop Shop Approach for Achieving Greater Justice in Manitoba. It was created through a partnership between the law centre and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in an effort to generate Manitoba-specific data about inequity in justice.

Fenske and her team used focus groups with the public, interviews with service providers and a literature review of legal aid in Canada to identify gaps in services.

They identified several groups of Manitobans who face barriers to accessing legal services or information. Those groups include people in rural or remote communities, Indigenous people, newcomers and female survivors of family violence, as well as people in precarious employment situations and those with physical or mental disabilities.

It also highlighted the possibility of a "one-stop shop" to make legal services accessible in one place — either in a single physical spot or in a unified online presence. Fenske said it's not clear exactly how that would work, but the idea was popular among participants.

"I think the biggest takeaway would be to recognize the number of different service providers and community organizations that are working really hard to try and meet the needs of vulnerable Manitobans," she said.

"And on top of that, the need to bring things back to a more community-led or community-driven approach, so actually figuring out what communities need and responding to that."

Community-driven fixes

The report found many people don't trust the legal system or have faith they'll get justice.

According to the report, factors like poverty, geographical location, language issues and cultural differences can put up barriers for people hoping to navigate the legal system, even if that doesn't require getting a lawyer.

"There's a lot of things at stake for a lot of people. It's not even necessarily about being able to actually solve particular legal problems. For a lot of people, it starts with even being able to recognize issues as having some sort of legal facet," Fenske said.

"Many people in that way don't even understand their … own legal rights and obligations, and so there can be a lot of consequences that flow from that in terms of vulnerabilities that end up compounded by having [legal] problems."

Allison Fenske, an attorney for the Public Interest Law Centre, said legal services need to be community-driven and accessible to all. (CBC)

The report stresses the importance of incorporating Indigenous-led engagement on what justice and access to justice means from the perspective of Indigenous legal traditions, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.

Last month, five Manitoba judges announced plans to meet with First Nations leaders in northern Manitoba in keeping with the same calls to action.

The report also recommends fostering a sense of inclusiveness and understanding of other cultures, giving training on how to provide respectful legal services to people with mental health issues, and asking underserved communities how to make legal services accessible to them.

"There didn't appear to be a lot of reaching out directly to affected communities to ask them how their needs could best be met," Fenske said.

"Oftentimes ... approaches were a more kind of top-down, institutional approach. It's really important to have a community-driven or community-led approach."

Co-ordination needed: report

Manitoba is home to several groups providing legal information, advice or aid, Fenske said, but she would like to see the groups work together more to make sure everybody can access their services equally. 

"I think it's really important that there be a co-ordinated approach, and there is going to have to be some leadership, whether that's from the government or whether that's from other service organizations, maybe the Law Society of Manitoba as regulating the legal profession," she said.

To fill the gaps, professionals need to know more about what services are offered, where they're available and who they're available to, her report concludes.

It recommends developing partnerships, improving communication and creating standards of training, knowledge and evaluation, plus an overall needs assessment of the Manitoba population as a whole.

"I'm hoping that this report serves as the start to a broader conversation. I don't think that the end is with the publication of this report. I actually think that this is just the beginning," Fenske said.

"Hopefully what it can do is provide a bit of a resource to those that, you know, are able to have these conversations and that are in sort of decision-making places around conversations around access to justice, [and] that this provides a resource to them to help in those decisions."