Saskatchewan taking first steps to reform access to legal services

Canadian access to justice reform
Canadian access to justice reform

A task force has delivered a report to the Saskatchewan justice ministry and the province’s law society that might result in more non-legal practitioners delivering legal services to the public.

“The benchers are committed to improving access to legal services for the public and look forward to exploring solutions based on the recommendations of the task team,” said Craig Zawada, Law Society of Saskatchewan president.

A team of 11 professionals, each with a different legal background, were given the task of coming up with ideas to provide more access to citizens who need legal help.

Among other recommendations, the report opened the possibility for the law society to have the “licensing authority to allow service providers to practice law with a limited license on a case-by-case basis,” according to a press release.

And, it might allow for an expanded list of professionals — who are not lawyers or law students — to dispense legal advice to the public.

“Once there’s a licensing system in place, we see the possibility that an organization, for example, that serves the needs of a lot of new Canadians might want to have the ability to provide some immigration services for those people,”  former deputy minister of justice and task force member Gerald Tegart said to the Prince Albert Daily Herald.

This effort comes after the province announced recent cuts to legal aid, which was ill-advised, argued Sarah Buhler and Leif Jensen in the Regina Leader-Post. Buhler is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law and Jensen is a lawyer at Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City.

“Now is the time for properly funded and expanded legal aid in Saskatchewan. Accessible, quality Legal Aid representation is an essential part of a properly functioning justice system. Without the ability to meaningfully access the justice system, people may be forced to compromise or forfeit their rights. Legal aid lawyers work to protect people’s rights and uphold the rule of law every day: This is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic society.”

In Ontario, the law society approved a proposal in principle to allow civil society organizations (CSOs) the ability to provide legal services to the public.

“Under the new policy, CSOs will be permitted to provide legal services to clients in addition to the services they already provide, such as social and health services. The policy is intended to enable the creation of new inclusive entry points for vulnerable people to find legal services, and integrated service delivery to people facing multiple issues, including legal problems,” states a release on the Law Society of Ontario web site.

But a federal law reform proposal, Bill C-75, might throw a monkey wrench into the push for greater access to justice, argued Lisa Cirillo, executive director of Downtown Legal Services in Toronto.

If passed, the bill could handcuff paralegals and law students who represent people who can’t afford a lawyer but are not eligible for legal aid. The Liberal government wants to make all summary offences punishable by a maximum of two years less a day, as part of the Bill.

Currently, paralegals and law students are only allowed to represent those who face a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

“That is an access-to-justice crisis, both for the clients and the courts, because it slows everything down if you have clients in there who don’t understand the process, don’t know what’s expected of them, and can’t get access to legal advice,” Cirillo told the Toronto Star.

And this might bring on more self-representation in the system which is a “recipe for disaster” said Scott Reid, a partner at Edward R. Royle and Partners in a blog post on the Canadian Bar Association website.

“Self-represented trials take about twice as long as trials with counsel, on average. So wait for a huge influx of self-represented people in court, eating up hugely disproportionate amounts of court time, leading to further and further delays of other matters. Criminal courts are soon going to look like family courts.”

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