Solving the Issue of Access to Justice by Redefining “Access to Justice”

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“Justice is open to all; like the Ritz Hotel.”

In the article “Clients Need Legal Services But Not Necessarily Lawyers“, Mark Cohen writes about the issue of access to justice. He points out that improving access to justice does not always mean improving access to lawyers. He refers to new products that provide legal services. These products include a chatbot that helps fight parking tickets, LegalZoom, Hello Divorce, and alternative legal service providers (like in house departments) that are not built on the profit per partner model.

Cohen also refers to the scholarship by Rebecca Sandefur in explaining why improving access to justice does not necessarily mean improving access to lawyers. Improving access to justice starts by redefining what “access to justice means.”

In the article titled “Access to What?”, Sandefur redefines the meaning of “access to justice”. Sandefur points out that solving the problem of access to justice requires a new conceptualization of the problem. “The definition of the crisis as one of unmet legal need comes from the bar.” The idea that it is an unmet legal need comes from the fact that judges and lawyers are defining the problem. “Judges and lawyers work at the top of an enormous iceberg of civil justice activity.”

Most of the justice issues are invisible and handled without the help of judges or lawyers. Declaring the problem as a problem of legal services gives lawyers a starring role and makes for a tidy, but inaccurate narrative.

Sandefur writes that the “access to justice crisis is a crisis of exclusion and inequality, for which legal services will sometimes provide a solution.” Most civil justice problems are handled by people on their own primarily because “people do not consider law as a solution for their justice problems.” Rather, people think of their problems as issues in relationships, work, or neighbours.

Sandefur recommends that research be done to better understand when access to justice can be achieved by using the courts, legal services, or by another actor. Many problems adding to the access to justice crisis are part of larger systemic problems.

(This article was originally posted on slaw.ca Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)

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