Access to justice without lawyers
Access to justice without lawyers
Access to justice has been on my mind lately. A colleague gave me this article by Frances Joychild QC and it really stirred me up.
Over the past three years I have wondered increasingly if I am in a nightmare and have woken in Charles Dickens England. On a daily basis I clear my email and phone messages or answer the phone to at least one person in dire and desperate need of legal assistance, often with an extraordinary legal problem and always having found no-one to help them.
This conversation can be a harrowing one. The desperate, enormous need of some litigants can be simply overwhelming; from experience it seems that those most vulnerable through financial position are the most likely to suffer real injustice and mistreatment (and the least likely to be able to afford legal assistance to correct it).
What can we do?
There are options for help already, of course. There is legal aid, and there is voluntary pro bono assistance, but neither can come close to addressing the scale of need. Legal aid and pro bono work both have their limitations as well, and inevitably add a burden of bureaucracy or financial strain on all involved. They are vital, but they are not enough.
No, if we are actually going to confront this issue, we are going to need to do it differently. As lawyers we are part of a privileged elite. We have insight into the complex and often contradictory rules of law and administration that even the smartest and most-educated lay people generally do not. That privilege comes with a profound and urgent obligation to serve our communities.
What it does not mean is that we need to get overwhelmed with the scale of the task before us. It does not mean we are limited to existing solutions. We do not have to wring our hands and sigh, or bury our heads in the sand just to avoid the pain an awareness of the issue can bring.
No, a problem like this is a tantalising opportunity for creativity, for empowerment, for, dare I say it, joy.
The Symphony Law solution
Recently I spent a week examining Symphony Law and deciding where I would like to take it next. I reflected again on Frances' article. I thought about the violations of law and justice that I have experienced in my own life and how the right advice, the right principles, the right approach, got me through those dark times and into this extraordinary place I am in now. And I thought about the ways I like to learn: through humour, through engaging speeches and creative performance, through superbly crafted writing and poignant films. I thought about how John Oliver managed to engage millions of Americans in the important but boring issue of internet neutrality.
Access to justice is broader than access to lawyers and the rule of law. It also includes access to a sense of personal justice. A sense that when your principles and rights are violated that you can carry yourself and act in your own best interests, whether or not the dispute is one that even needs a lawyer (many don't). Those skills, those principles, that way of thinking, all of that can be taught. We can illuminate disputes in a way that gives people back their power and their sense of self.
To that end I am developing the Symphony Law Seminar Series, which I am billing as a pithy and irreverent series whose purpose is to illuminate and clarify personal disputes (legal and otherwise) and set people up to better care for and represent themselves when they experience injustice. My hope is that the series will reduce people's suffering when embroiled in a dispute, and improve their ability and confidence to represent themselves.*
What happens next...
I am in the process of developing the series and am having way too much fun in the process. I will be updating shortly with the first dates. If you or someone you know is in a dispute or has been in one recently, perhaps you will consider coming along. If nothing else it should be a fun experience. Places will be limited so stay on the lookout.
In the meantime, let's remember that large-scale problems like access to justice need many many solutions, and that there is room for them all. More than that, let's remember that solutions to harrowing problems do not have to drain us (in fact, the less they drain us the more sustainable they will be).
* The inevitable question here is whether I am promoting self representation in litigation. All things being equal, I am not. Litigation is complex and uncertain and having an expert to navigate for you and act on your behalf is the ideal. However, there are innumerable disputes that do not reach litigation and there are innumerable citizens who cannot afford lawyers even if they have to go to court. Access to justice means working for those groups too.