The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Omar Ha-Redeye

Equal justice is an economic issue too

September 17 2015 17 September 2015

Tonight’s federal political debate, hosted by The Globe & Mail, is anticipated to focus largely on economic issues. All three parties of the major have touted their credentials in their ability to strengthen the economy. In particular, their platforms all seek the support of the “middle class.”

Yet the discussions by all of these parties continue to ignore how life events impact every day Canadians, in particular with their encounters with the legal system. A death in the family, divorce or a significant work or business dispute, can all have an enormous impact on the well being and the finances of average Canadians.

The CBA’s “Reaching Equal Justice Report” estimated in 2013 that 45 per cent of all Canadians will have a problem in the next three years that requires a legal solution. Very few of these people will actually receive the help they need from professional legal services, with three-quarters of all people in Canadian family courts being self-represented.

When these legal issues are not dealt with early on, they often create bigger problems down the road. We know that 22 per cent of people have 85 per cent of the legal issues. Our inaction results in even greater inequality in Canadian society over time.

That’s not to say that lawyers shouldn’t care about the economy at all. In 2012, we created Lawyers for Fair Taxation during the Ontario provincial election, a group of lawyers who were concerned about the growing inequality in the province. Our focus on distributive justice, as evaluated by tools like the Gini coefficient, was directly related to homicide rates.

In other words, the best way to prevent crime in Canada is not by building mega prisons and creating mandatory minimum sentences, but by investing in social programs to close the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. Keeping people in jail unnecessarily does nothing for the labour market, and prevents these individuals from properly contributing to society. None of us enjoy economic growth when there are economic disparities and the corresponding legal issues that emerge from it.

Unfortunately, very little attention has been spent on misguided policies by the current government on their justice portfolio. Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe & Mail notes that even if the current government is unsuccessful in this election, the other parties are unlikely to reverse the “tough on crime” agenda because it would not be politically convenient to do so,

…they fear (and perhaps know) that these counterproductive policies are politically popular. The policies were sold as slogans, and the slogans remain powerful.

The opposition parties’ silence on justice issues that experts have largely decried, and the incumbent government’s refusal to reverse these policies, is nothing less than shameful (Elizabeth May and Tom Mulcair have discussed the need to alleviate poverty but haven’t provided a plan on how they will do so).

An economy built on the incarceration of our most vulnerable and least affluent is an abomination to our vision of a free and democratic society. Lawyers, who defend the innocent as defence lawyers and only act on behalf of the Crown in the public interest, have been the loudest in their opposition to this trend. None of the parties have properly responded to these cries.

Support for our civil justice system is just as abysmal. In civil justice matters Canada ranks 54th in the world for legal aid. A cost-benefit analysis study conducted in Australia suggests there is a significant benefit to society for every dollar spent on legal aid, in particular in preventing issues like domestic violence and child abuse. Legal aid funding, when properly used, helps those who are in greatest need in society.

Instead, we’ve observed a steady decrease in Federal contributions to legal aid since the mid-90’s. The federal government has attempted to wash its hands of legal issues, leaving it to the provinces.

Unfortunately, justice issues don’t get the same profile and importance as services like health and education, but for many Canadians there is no health or education without legal assistance for their pressing justice concerns.

The legal impact on Canadians’ well being and the lack of attention on these issues thus far by all the parties, does not bode well for the future of our justice system. Economic strength is important, but has little effect on the significant number of Canadians who are otherwise preoccupied with legal concerns.

A strong economy also means investment in the services that prevent legal problems, and proper support for Canadians when those problems will inevitably arise.

The CBA is encouraging its members to raise awareness over justice issues by providing an election engagement kit, and through a campaign to illustrate how these issues affect real Canadians. The #whataboutalex campaign humanizes these stories to make these justice issues real.

You can participate in the debate by using the #whataboutalex hashtag on Twitter. More importantly, you can emphasize how important our legal system is to your local MP and your family members and friends when they go to the ballot box on Oct. 19.

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Omar Ha-Redeye practices out of Fleet Street Law in Toronto. He is a Professor at Ryerson University and Centennial College. He sits on the board of directors of the OBA and co-chairs its Young Lawyers Division.

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