Yukon’s court system is trying to make the civil justice system less costly and time consuming for people.
For more than a year, judges, lawyers, associations representing women, and members of the legal community have been working to improve access for the general public.
“From criminal law to civil and family law, people don’t understand how the system works,” said Kyle Risby.
Risby’s job as a court worker in Whitehorse is to help Indigenous people navigate through the system. Last spring he flew to Montreal to meet with a national action committee set up in 2008 by Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin to improve accessibility to justice for civil cases.
The committee came up with a series of recommendations in 2013.
The Yukon, because of its size, is the ideal place to apply those recommendations and measure their impacts.
“It’s an amazing testing bed,” said Paul Di Libero, an articling law student from Toronto who has been working on accessibility in the Yukon justice system since May. “It’s a smaller jurisdiction, people are really involved and interested in making things better so it could have an impact nationally.”
Working with a local accessibility committee, one of Di Libero’s and Risby’s first tasks was to look at the legal forms people have to fill out. A victim’s services worker had told them many people had trouble filling out the paperwork.
“It’s a nightmare for me, I don’t know what’s going on,” the worker told them.
It was especially difficult for women who were trying to leave abusive relationships and were asked to fill out countless forms.
“The court registry which handles the forms was seeing a lot of errors coming in,” Di Liberio said.
That’s partly because the forms are riddled with legalese most people don’t understand and partly because an increasing number of people choose to be self-represented for civil matters.
A recent study in Ontario found that over 50 per cent of people involved in family law cases, separation, divorce and child custody were self-represented.
“The legal language in the form we’re trying to change to plain language in a user friendly format, like an internet form,” Risby said.
Risby and Di Libero are following a different approach than the legal system has historically used by testing prototypes of new forms to make sure they’re easier to understand.
“It’s the design thinking model as it came out of Silicon Valley and Stanford,” Di Libero said. “It’s focused on what’s called human or empathic design.”
Gone are the days of a closed-off committee working for months to come up with measures the general public had not had a chance to test.
“We want a dialogue with the community,” Di Libero said. “That’s what makes the model really good.”
In October, the president of the Federation Law Societies of Canada was in town to talk about accessibility issues he’s seen across the country.
The legal system needs to change its perspective, said Jeff Hirsch.
“We need to understand what the public experiences from their perspective in order to come up with solution to make things work better for them,” he said at the time. “The fixes should come locally.”
The courts could look at using some sort of triage, so less complicated cases don’t have to go through extra steps.
“Most citizens do not want or need the extra process or cost,” he said. “Most are looking for efficiency, affordability and want an opportunity to be heard.”
But Yukon’s courts are already ahead of many other jurisdictions: Judges in civil matters will often attempt to solve a case through mediation first. Only if that process fails will they proceed to trial.
“I can’t overemphasize how progressive that is,” Di Libero said. “It’s a much bigger issue in Toronto. Because of the volume (of cases) it’s very difficult to get alternative dispute resolutions.”
The committee’s next goal is to work on improving small claims courts, which deals with civil lawsuits under $25,000. It has already sent out surveys to find out what issues people are facing.
But Di Libero and Risby are also interested in hearing from people who have other suggestions to improve justice accessibility in the territory.
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