Access to justice system not equal for all communities, says N.S. report

WATCH: A new report released by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society finds that members of disadvantaged communities do not have positive perceptions of the justice system. Julia Wong explains.

HALIFAX – A new report from the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society finds some community groups have difficulties accessing and approaching the legal system.

The Talk Justice report released Friday says some barriers include poverty, barriers to accessing legal education, lack of diversity in the system, racism and discrimination, difficulty accessing lawyers and legal supports and a sometimes hard-to-understand legal system.

Research took place over the last six months with approximately 90 economically disadvantaged and equity-seeking community members.

It found that poverty affected whether an individual felt he or she had received adequate justice services or could “afford justice”.

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“Without funds, some individuals quality for legal aid but many others are relegated to representing themselves or not pursuing their matters,” the report reads.

Individuals reported money could buy a lawyer’s time thereby the more money they had, the more likely they could be successful in court.

It continues on to state those living in poverty faced challenges accessing mental health care, transportation, banking services, housing, and that can make it difficult to retain a lawyer, attend court and navigate legal processes.

The report also looks at the inaccessibility of the justice system, and there is lack of legal literacy and feelings of complete disempowerment when it comes to legal problems.

“There are significant literacy, linguistic and cultural barriers to getting information that is needed to begin to understand the complexities of the Canadian justice system,” it reads.

Lameia Reddick, the community engagement consultant for the Barristers’ Society, said she was surprised by what she heard from the community.

“People are jumping through a lot of hoops and a lot of people don’t feel that they experience justice in the same way,” she said.

Individuals reported viewing legal processes are “complex and culturally foreign” and “not knowing what to do or how to go about getting information or education”.

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Respondents also stated frustration over how the media portrayed communities as responsible for the crimes of individuals.

“There was a strong sentiment that the media covers news stories differently when equity-seeking community members are involved,” the report reads.

Individuals reported experiences of racism and discrimination when maneuvering the justice system, for example perceived differences in sentencing and in treatment by police and social services.

Tremaine Emmerson had run-ins with the law as a teen and said he found the justice system favours those with higher income.

“A lot of us come from low-income housing. I’m a descendent of Africville so we never knew too much. We never had the resources to be able to afford these high-paid lawyers,” he said.

Emmerson said his perception of the system is that those who live in poverty do not have a fighting chance.

“If you have money, you can possibly beat your charge. If you don’t have money then so be it.”

Killa Atencio has family and friends in the justice system. Her first-hand experience has shown her the system is hard to navigate and access.

“It’s just not accessible. The [legal jargon] is a huge barrier. A lot of people who are involved in the justice system are not educated. They haven’t been to school,” she said.
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Even the Barristers’ Society¬†President Tilly Pillay said¬†access to the system is difficult.

“People living in poverty, people who are single mothers and have children and have other challenges, it’s important to have accessible and affordable legal services,” she said.

The perceptions of the justice system are alarming for the province’s chief justice.

Chief Justice Michael McDonald said he is committed to putting the public first when it comes to access to justice.

“I’m very concerned. The judiciary is very concerned,” he said.

“We certainly want to do our best to enhance access to justice and I think the judiciary has to be involved.”

Reddick said that greater dialogue is needed between those in the justice system and those interacting with it.

“We really just need to listen to them and support them. We’re trying to create solutions and we’re not involving communities in creating those solutions,” she said.

The report’s recommendations¬†include increasing access to lawyers and community supports, increasing diversity in the legal system, providing legal education to disadvantaged communities and making courtroom practices more inclusive and greater use of plain language in court.