'Human-centred' approach needed to ensure all Canadians have access to justice: lawyer
Shannon Salter chairs BC's online Civil Resolution Tribunal, says technology is only part of the solution
A British Columbia lawyer and chair of the province's online Civil Resolution Tribunal, says implementing a human-centred approach is key if Canada's justice system is to be truly accessible to all.
Shannon Salter — who's also an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law — says simply adding a layer of technology, such as holding hearings via Zoom or other online platforms, isn't enough to ensure everyone can access the justice system.
"The underlying things that make the legal system so inaccessible haven't changed at all," Salter said. "So really, what I'm advocating is that we need to do something far more difficult and far more foundational, which is that we have to basically completely redesign our public justice system through the eyes of the people who use it."
That's the approach the tribunal has taken. Salter said the tribunal already operates online — it has jurisdiction to handle things like neighbour disputes in apartment buildings, or small claims proceedings — but has taken other steps to improve accessibility.
"Some of the things that we've done to use human-centred design have been things like writing everything in a Grade 6 reading level, asking if people need special accommodation for mental health issues or physical disabilities," she said. "Then working with them to create a plan offering choice about how you communicate."
"So not just online services, but also telephone or video conference or before the pandemic in person services as well."
Salter said the feedback the tribunal has received has been positive, and she'd like to see the wider Canadian justice system take similar steps.
"If you take court appearances, for example, in criminal matters, well, if what we're trying to do is make sure that we can get a hold of a person and make sure that they are communicating with the justice system, do we still need to do that by having people sometimes travel many hundreds of kilometres, which is a real problem in northern British Columbia?" she said. "And … a problem in northern Ontario, as well."
Salter suggested trying to find ways that would allow someone to make those appearances in other ways, such as via text messages, or from a band council office or community centre.
"Human-centred design would have us look at every single aspect of what we currently do and figure out how we could do that in a way that better meets the needs of the people to whom the justice system belongs," Salter said. "So what that looks like might be different in criminal matters versus civil matters, but human-centred design, I think, is a worthy approach no matter what area of law you're looking at."
Salter is scheduled to give a talk on the subject via Zoom Tuesday night at 7 p.m. The talk is hosted by Lakehead University.