Your Access to Justice
What is access to justice?
Access to justice in Canada means that everyone has the right to equal treatment under the law and equal benefit of the law. It is a concern in our legal system because it incorporates all of the principles of justice; rule of law, impartiality, right to a fair trial, equality, and fairness.
Although the system is intended to handle everyone equally, certain people become trapped and spend a considerable amount of time and energy attempting to break free. Others, on the other hand, breeze through the process and get on with their lives.
Having access to justice can mean many different things. It could entail having the financial means to obtain legal help when you need it. When your liberty is at risk, you should be aware of your right to counsel and have courts that can quickly settle your problem. It entails understanding what resources and services are accessible, as well as how to access them. It means knowing your rights and knowing how our legal system functions. It also entails having faith in the system's ability to produce a fair outcome, understanding that you will support and embrace it even though you disagree with it.
Rule of Law
We can better understand the rule of law in three points:
The Rule of Law means that individuals must accept and understand that law is necessary to manage society and allow it to function correctly.
The law applies equally to everyone, including those in power and our justice system, meaning no one is above the law. Everyone must respect and follow it.
No one in our society has the authority to exercise unlimited power to deprive us of our legal rights.
Rule of Law conveys a sense of orderliness and holds those in higher authority accountable for their actions if they go against the law. It also protects individuals from arbitrary action from authorities.
This one is quite obvious and straightforward. Bias and prejudice should not be present at any point during a trial. The judge must respect each individual in the case and cannot have or appear to have any bias/prejudice during the trial processes.
If a defendant suspects that there is a reasonable apprehension of bias, then the trial needs to be handled differently. Reasonable apprehension of bias means that in a case, there is an actual bias present that causes a jury or judge not to act impartially. It also means that a trial may appear to be biased, which it should not. If there is a reasonable apprehension of bias, this jeopardizes the chance of having a fair, impartial trial.
All individuals are liable to be treated fairly under the same laws as everyone else and are also entitled to be protected by the same laws (Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms).
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Section 11 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explains that an individual charged with an offence has the right to be “presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.”
A defendant should know and understand their rights and the evidence intended to be present during a trial. This is important so they can be prepared to form a proper defence to the charges made. This aspect is crucial during the process and procedures within the judicial system. This also ties into the aspect of Impartiality, as no trial should have any bias or prejudice present.
The government is responsible for designing laws and policies that protect and stand by the principles of justice. If a defendant lives in a remote area of the province, the Ontario Court of Justice has fly-in courts for remote areas in the far north. If a defendant is unable to afford to hire a lawyer to defend themselves, Ontario has a legal aid program that helps pay for the legal services of low-income people. If there’s a case where the defendant may have a mental illness, there are programs in place in hospitals to intervene in mental health crises, and there are Review Boards to help oversee each case.
What’s the issue?
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, rape
Although access to justice has these rules and laws that are in place to protect and aid individuals, there are loopholes where certain people can get easier access and get off the hook no matter their charges. It's evident that law has favoured the wealthy as well as a specific race.
An example where a wealthy individual got off easier than they should have would be the case of Robert H. Richards II. Richards is the wealthy heir to the massive du Pont family fortune. The du Pont family is worth $14.5 billion, and Richards' house cost $1.8 million. According to All That's Interesting, Richards was arrested and put on trial for continuously raping his daughter when she was a toddler. Richards initially denied the charges, but upon failing a polygraph that he had volunteered to take, he changed his plea to guilty.
This should have landed Richards in jail for many years. Instead, Richards' high-priced attorneys were able to have the charges reduced to a fourth-degree rape plea (which usually is reserved for statutory rape cases) and an eight-year sentence. However, this was not the end. Richards' attorneys insisted on the court finding that he would not "fare well" in jail, so the sentence was suspended. Richards did not spend any time in prison and was later sentenced to probation. Richards served no time and was instead placed on probation, forced to register as a sex offender, and ordered to pay $4,395 to the Delaware Violent Crimes Compensation Board.
Wealth is not the only influence on the justice system. Factors such as relationships or connections between those in the justice community can violate the principles of justice, especially the second statement of the rule of law.
The statement states that the law applies equally to everyone, including people in power, such as heads of state, police officers, judges, and politicians. Judges can value certain lawyers and aid them in improving the judge's reputation. Managing partners at a firm can pass on inside information to their lawyers for their firm to look better and win more cases despite what the legal process is. Some may even have personal plans that influence how they take on cases. They may want to achieve a higher position and work to achieve it by enforcing a power they don't have jurisdiction over. Some lawyers may drag out cases to improve their odds of winning.
These individuals or groups believe they are higher than the law since they are the ones who apply it instead of receiving the consequences from it. The issue is, we'll most likely never catch them committing these crimes.
Why is it important?
Having a country where people can easily access resources when dealing with the justice system is very important because this creates a stronger and safer society. It allows society to trust their government when they know their government is making sure that corruption, greed, and prejudice aren’t a factor in the process of trials and court cases.
It’s evident that Black people are more likely to be arrested due to the residential areas (poor communities) that they live in and because of their financial standing. When we see Black people be wrongly accused or struggle with the justice system due to the colour of their skin, it affects the rest of society because people, especially people of colour and other Black individuals, can relate and understand as to why the system is treating the defendant in this way. It breaks the trust between a government and their citizens, and defeats the whole purpose of the principles of justice.
How to improve access to justice
Enhancing current law degrees with additional subjects is one step toward expanding access to justice. A course on access to justice will help students develop a more realistic understanding of the legal system's realities.
To do so, comprehensive research is needed, including statistics, obstacles, and court procedures. More pro bono or "low" bono cases could greatly benefit those individuals struggling with fees for attorneys.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Another idea is to be stricter in the hiring of law representatives. It’s difficult to change this issue from the inside out, so we must start on the outside. Any position in the justice system can hold detailed entry tests to ensure they are getting not just academically qualified individuals but also individuals who understand society and social justice.
Article Author: Alizeh Qaiser
Article Editors: Olivia Ye