Walking into Court – Is “Physical” Access to Justice Attainable?
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.
If you’ve ever been to 47 Sheppard Avenue East, you’ll know the point of this article well before I reach it. For those fortunate enough to not know the building, 47 Sheppard is a Toronto courthouse primarily used for small claims matters. It’s an ominous, grey building, accessible only from a side entrance, with no reception desk, and the type of parking lot that makes you wish you took public transit. Despite trafficking thousands of lawyers, judges, officials, and individuals every day, 47 Sheppard is, without doubt, one of the least accessible buildings in the city.
That being said, the Court’s mission has been just the opposite. Those operating the Court understand that 47 Sheppard is the “people’s court,” a location for individuals of all backgrounds and circumstances to seek justice on an even footing. The Court has taken important steps to improve accessibility: labelling floors, posting signs, and hiring friendly and supportive staff. Unfortunately, in the overall sea of chaos, these steps are like pebbles in a river. The reality of 47 Sheppard is that it is cold, confusing, and difficult to navigate. Having been to other city courts, my experience has not varied, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that other Canadian courthouses are similar, if not worse.
What does this mean for court users? For the lawyers and judges, not much. The elites of the legal system, lawyers and judges using the courts have the freedom to move about, check in on courtrooms, and speak to court officials as they wish. They do not risk being reprimanded for walking into the courtroom too early, or embarrassed by a court official if they ask a silly question. Though lawyers can find 47 Sheppard as confusing as anyone, their experience navigating through that confusion is, at least, manageable.
For the individual, the physical experience of going to court is much worse. At 47 Sheppard, I watched confused and frustrated clients wander aimlessly until their lawyer came to collect them. For self-representing individuals, the experience looked even more difficult, going from courtroom to courtroom to read the list of hearings, trying to spot their name and some indication of when their matter would be heard. It is a humiliating experience that leaves individuals utterly dependent, and places highly personal and sensitive matters into a dehumanized and unsympathetic environment.
Access to Justice, for the legal community, continues to revolve around pumping infinite amounts of legal information into the public domain, and using technology to make that information easier to read and understand. This is a complicated mission, but perhaps it’s no surprise lawyers have chosen to focus on it over the relatively simpler, yet more embarrassing, task of admitting the basic flaws with the buildings where “law” is supposed to happen.
And here lies the point of this article, a point so self-evident that it will make any 47 Sheppard user roll their eyes in exacerbation. If you can’t physically access the space where the legal system operates, you can’t really access “justice” either! The possibilities of good legal education, strong legal aid systems, and feasible legal technologies all mean nothing if, when the day comes, you can’t even find the courtroom where your hearing is taking place. It’s well past time for lawyers, judges, and officials (who, behind the scenes, complain about the confusing courthouses all the time!) to publicly acknowledge this problem and take immediate, foundational steps to resolve it.
Improving physical access to justice will take a concerted effort on the part of governments and the provincial law societies. Every courthouse should be equipped with a “Help Desk” right at the entrance to guide individuals and answer questions. Effort needs to be made to install signage which clearly points individuals to services (such as duty council, family services, and youth services) available in the courthouse. Lastly, every court should post each day’s matters on a screen in a central location, as is done in most public buildings, so that all court users can quickly verify when and where their matter will be heard. These steps would make a huge difference for the court experience, but they only represent a portion of what’s needed.
I believe that what’s most important for now is an attitudinal change in the legal community. The confusion of going to court is not a passing annoyance to be laughed about over drinks with the other lawyers. It is an embarrassment and affront to the system and the profession, and should be treated as such. The lawyer is not there to babysit their client, and lawyers everywhere should be ashamed when the court system requires them to take on that role.
The physical experience of going to court should be the least difficult part of a legal situation. It should be the location where our government help disputing individuals by putting them in a fair and neutral setting to resolve their problem. The situation is often difficult enough itself; the court should be the place to restore order, not add to the difficulty. The legal community’s attitude needs to change so that we are holding courts to that high standard, and not settling when they fall below it. Physical access to justice is just as important as any other element, and it’s time we bring it out of the background, and into the forefront.