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Justice - More Than Criminal Courts

Submission to the Panel on Justice and the Media

Posted on: June 7 /2005

To strengthen public trust in the justice system, and encourage broad public access to information about justice, the public must first gain a better understanding of all parts of the justice system. They must also see firsthand evidence of how a fair and accessible justice system contributes to healthy and strong communities.

Until people become involved in the justice system, they often believe that the system doesn't affect them. In fact, only a small percentage of the population may ever have dealings with the justice system. Many members of the public rely on popular television shows like "Law & Order" to learn about the system. Beyond the Hollywood myth, the public receives most information about our justice system through the media.

When the media report on issues to do with the justice system, we get a sense of the types of stories that are most compelling and that strike a chord with audiences:

  • Faceless and nameless youth accused of criminal activities;
  • Illegal immigrants who commit crimes in this country;
  • Sensational murder trials;
  • Abusive or negligent parents.

It's easy to see why the public may be distrustful then, of the justice system. The stories we read and hear about in the media are focussed almost exclusively on the criminal courts. The stories provoke fear and anger - the complete opposite of trust.

So how do we create more trust? Help the public to understand more about all the different parts of the justice system. Tell them about what happens at the Social Benefits Tribunal, the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, and the family courts. Tell the public about how poor people are taken advantage of, pushed around and generally treated as second-class citizens. And then tell the story of how they might get help through the justice system.

Certainly stories about aspects of the criminal justice system are compelling. But equally interesting are the human-interest stories, the stories that talk about the gamut of issues people caught up in the justice system face every day.

Tell the story for example, of the 18-year old youth facing drug charges and two years in jail. Through an special alternative measures project funded by Legal Aid Ontario, he received probation, got a job, got drug counseling and eventually got back into school. Today he is an honour-roll student, he's saving money and just got his drivers' license.

Tell the story about the mother with three children, living in public housing who, due to a life-threatening mental illness, has fallen behind in her rent. Facing eviction and the break-up of her family, she is seeking time to repay her back rent.

Tell the story of parents living in public housing whose children are forcefully taken from their home. They have been fighting the Children's Aid Society and its thousands of dollars of resources and dozens of experts for over four years. With Legal Aid's help, they are finally getting a more level playing field and are able to bring the family back together.

Tell the story of the community legal clinic which is working with public housing officials to prevent eviction of tenants with mental health issues and to develop a plan of action to help the tenants.

Beyond telling stories of perceived injustices, tell stories that show all that we have to be proud of in our society - having a justice system that provides people with the help they need to avert injustices.

The media has a role to play in accurately portraying our justice system as it operates in Ontario. Legal Aid Ontario, for example, is an integral part of the justice system, assisting over one million low-income individuals every year. That's more than any single law firm in the country, yet the public believes that legal aid is only for criminals.

Legal Aid in Ontario is in fact so often misunderstood that women's groups and shelters routinely say to us and to their clients "legal aid doesn't cover family cases". Last year, Legal Aid Ontario provided over 27,000 certificates for family law cases. A further 10,000 certificates were issued to assist refugees fleeing persecution, war, imprisonment or even death in their home countries.

Some members of the public would surely be surprised to learn that poor people accused of crime in Ontario are not automatically assigned a public defender. They would be further surprised to learn that the premise of Ontario's legal aid system is that one's financial situation should not be a barrier to receiving high quality legal assistance, and clients are entitled to select a lawyer of their own choosing.

Many of the most successful and experienced lawyers in Ontario take legal aid cases. They don't do it for the money - most accept the work at more than 100 per cent below their normal market rates. They do it because it is the highest level of public service to be able to help those who cannot help themselves. Many of these cases are landmark cases that go on to affect other people for years to come.

While lawyers do not rank high on the list of professions which people admire, there are dozens of positive stories about lawyers who work many hours above and beyond what they are paid by Legal Aid Ontario. Do people realize that a large proportion of the lawyers doing legal aid work have more than 10 years of experience? Even the duty counsel lawyers who help people in the courts are often hired with five or more years of experience.

Until now, Legal Aid Ontario has been a silent partner in the justice system. While delegations of officials from around the world visit Ontario to learn about legal aid and the broad range of services available here, most of our own citizens know little about what legal aid does or why it's important. Legal Aid Ontario believes it is time to speak up and ensure that citizens understand the important role that legal aid plays in society.

As Louise Arbour stated, "Equality requires, among other things, that the most disadvantaged be empowered to participate meaningfully both in political and legal processes, unshackling them from the benevolence and whim of the powerful and enabling them to control their own destinies." 1

There are of course, confidentiality and privacy issues around telling clients' stories. Many reporters are surprised to learn that Legal Aid Ontario is prevented by law from identifying applicants for legal aid, as well as current or past legal aid clients. It is also prohibited from revealing any information about a client's lawyer, or information about lawyers' fees.

With a client's and/or a lawyer's permission however, Legal Aid Ontario would be happy to assist the media with tracking down and telling compelling human-interest stories. Legal Aid Ontario has a network of 51 legal aid offices and 79 community legal clinics across the province. Of the more than 4,000 private lawyers and staff lawyers who do legal aid work we have access to lawyers both famous and not-so-famous, as well as those who specialize in family disputes and violence, refugees, the environment, Aboriginal people, elderly people and injured workers.

By working together, partners in the justice system and the media can develop a lasting relationship. There is an interest for both parties to maintain and build on these relationships - media get access to expert resources and contacts to help them tell stories that their audience cares about; and the justice system gets a chance to tell a more complete and accurate story of how it contributes to a healthy society. By telling a variety of stories, instead of just the stories that provoke fear and anger, we can both help the public to gain a better understanding of the justice system and how it works.

For more information, contact:

Janet Leiper
Chair, Legal Aid Ontario
Telephone: 416-204-4755

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Footnote - 1: LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture. 2005

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