The process of gaining access to justice is remarkably complex. This complexity resides in the variety of individuals seeking recourse, the diversity of needs to be addressed, and the range of emotions it provokes.
Discussions on how to improve access to justice have been going on for a number of years now and have resulted in several new initiatives. Noteworthy among these was the reform of the small claims court, which made it possible for people to file a claim without the aid of a lawyer. This, in turn, made it less expensive to obtain legal recourse.
In theory, eliminating financial barriers should have made the small claims court the ideal tribunal for consumers. Yet statistics show the contrary. Starting in 1998, a first CROP survey ordered by Option consommateurs revealed that over the previous five years, only 6% of respondents had sought recourse to a small claims court. In 2010, another study revealed that few consumers were making use of the court, particularly for sums less than $200.
So the question raised by these findings becomes: Should efforts to improve access to justice go beyond the functionality of the system and be directed, instead, toward those who use it? For many people, the law seems like a set of rules and regulations that are completely detached from reality. The definition of access to justice obviously needs to be broadened.
In Canada, this notion has evolved beyond the traditional public legal system to include tools for prevention and dispute resolution. However, the advent of these tools raised fears that the weakest and poorest among those seeking justice will renounce their rights or attempt to assert them outside the legal system.