The Legal System on a First Name Basis – the Law in Small Communities
Samuel Michaels is the founder of Canada Legal Help. He writes on topics including access to justice, legal service provision, and legal system innovation. Samuel is a J.D. student at Osgoode Hall Law School.
As many of us know, legal problems often compound. They begin with the other party: the person who harmed you, failed an obligation, or denied your rights. And then they grow from there. It could be the involvement of police, the experience going to court, or the difficulties enforcing a judgement that can turn a difficult situation into a nightmare.
For some of us, living in small communities, these problems are amplified. Resources are fewer and farther between, privacy and confidentiality are harder to maintain, and the legal system is shrunken and overly-familiar. In small communities, where the majority of Canadians live, your local lawyer is everyone’s local lawyer. The police, court officials, and judges are all known both to each other and the community. If there is a problem using this tight-knit legal system, there is no other option.
This reality is often ignored by the legal community in its quest for access to justice. The flash and fun of promoting new technology is an easier focal point than the monotony of establishing legal resources in remote towns and villages. However, technology is well on its way, and we need to prepare for once it’s here. Even if an individual in a small town can e-file a small claim, and communicate with their lawyer online, none of that will matter if their town cop and judge have a pre-determined bias against them.
Resolving these issues is an enormous challenge, but well worth the effort. The first step involves clearly identifying the problems. From my experience, I would identify the following as the most pressing problems faced by individuals using the legal system in small communities:
- Lack of “members” in the legal system resulting in a lack of oversight and proper hierarchy.
- Lack of legal resources available to the public.
- Over-familiarity between different elements of the legal system (police, courts, lawyers, etc.).
- Insufficient options for individuals seeking appeals or alternate forms of legal recourse.
These are not simple problems to solve. It would be nearly impossible to equip every Canadian town with the same range of resources and options available to individuals in big cities. Further, many of the issues associated with legal services in small communities are symptomatic of life in these communities overall. Innovative (though not necessarily technological) solutions will be required to bring service provision to a standard that is at least relatively similar to that enjoyed by city-dwellers.
Despite the difficulties, increased attention needs to be paid to individuals in small communities, and their experiences with the legal system. At the least, efforts should be made to ensure that regional resources are available for all Canadians, especially when local services fail them. This would require the cooperation of small town and city resource providers from both the public and private sectors. It’s a worthwhile effort that would improve lives and increase cooperation between Canadians of all backgrounds. Hopefully, we’ll see even more solutions emerge soon.