Alex Himelfarb, director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs and former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet and Sharon Matthews Q.C. of Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman squared off on this issue during the Envisioning Equal Justice summit on Friday. Himelfarb argued for the affirmative and Matthews for the opposing view. Here's a summary of that debate:
There's a lot of consensus that the system isn't working and substantial agreement that a national justice care system is a noble idea. People who fight for access to justice understand that the notion of equality loses meaning when access is arbitrary and Charter rights become empty if people lack the tools to make those rights meaningful. Furthermore, the social, human and economic costs of the disparity in access is huge in termed of busted lives, broken families and lost opportunities.
So why has there been so little progress? Part of the problem is the age of austerity in which we live. Austerity is a lot like the Canadian winter: it allows nothing to grow. It dulls the political imagination and nothing seems possible. In today's climate, if we didn't have a health care system we would say we couldn't afford what we have now. We would settle for less and build a system that would make it impossible to get to the vision of what could be.
This is why it's important not to lose the vision for what access to justice could look like. Losing the vision could result in losing everything. Like winter, austerity lasts too long but it does pass. There will be a time when Canadians are ready to pay more taxes for a better Canada. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't be smart about looking for efficiencies and innovative funding models. But we shouldn't lose the vision.
Canadians might believe in equality, but a lot of work is still to be done to garner support for equal access to justice. In fact, the small gains that have been made will be crushed by attempts to bring in a universal-health-care-style legal aid system.
Simply achieving access to justice is pretty aspirational from where I sit. If the choices are between getting increased money and support for legal aid and losing ground on the gains we are making by switching the goal to universal legal care, then we are abandoning those most in need.
Today in British Columbia, health care consumes 40 cents out of every dollar of public spending; the justice system takes one cent of the same dollar. Why? The answer is because the public demands health care and so far they are not demanding access to justice.
Those opposed to social justice spending will conjure up the spectre of paying $1,000 per hour legal bills of Conrad Black. Conrad-Care will spill over into the call for adequate legal aid funding. The fight for those who are most vulnerable will be conflated with universal legal care. We too will be tarred with Conrad-Care. We will see our hard-fought gains disappear in one sound bite.
Over 40 years ago, a man named Harland Stonecipher saw the need for a universal system to access the law in the USA. After Mr. Stonecipher depleted his life savings trying to defend himself for an accident which wasn't his fault, he realized money not rights gave him access to the law. As a result, he created Prepaid Legal Services, now called LegalShield. LegalShield provides access to legal services (phone calls, letters, document review, Will preparation - even 24/7 emergency access) to its members (individuals, families and businesses) in 4 Canadian Provinces (B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario) and 49 States. Legal services are provided by selected, top-rated law firms in each Province and State. Access to the legal system in the form of an affordable legal expense plan for less than a $1.00 a day has been the solution for millions of LegalShield members across Canada and USA already. Mr. Stonecipher took the lead as an ordinary citizen and crusaded for affordable legal protection in a system which has failed millions of people and businesses for far too long. There is a solution, it's LegalShield.
Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National Magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine