If we really care about access to justice in this country then we should be prepared to do something now instead of waiting for government. As soon as the economy falters governments rush to cut services—usually to the most vulnerable people in our communities. So why wait? Why not go ahead and start helping people on our own? I’m not saying that government shouldn’t take responsibility for access to justice, but we can’t just sit around waiting for them to do it. People need legal help now, but can’t afford a lawyer. Often all they need is some information and helpful tips about how to represent themselves in court; or they need help with filling out a legal form. Of course there are many others that really need a lawyer’s services, one on one and in person. That’s where legal aid and free legal clinics come in. But the BC government has cut funding to these to such an extent that barely anyone can get help that way. So what can we do about it? First, we can demand that the government takes responsibility for access to justice by funding legal services for the most vulnerable people in our society. Second, we can use technology to help people with their legal problems.
A huge part of access to justice is access to meaningful, applicable legal information and advice—for free. It is now so easy to provide this! But in Canada there is a real lack of question and answer legal forums that would provide such a service. What we need is a place for the public to go and get legal questions answered by real legal experts—for free. Why for free? Well, first of all because people don’t want to pay for basic legal information that they have the right to know anyway. Secondly, when legal information is given for free on a public forum, the same rules that govern real legal advice by lawyers such as confidentiality, conflicts, and identification rules should not apply–and I would argue, don’t apply. What this means is that lawyers should be free to offer general legal information about a specific legal question without having to worry about identifying the recipients, keeping the recipients’ identity confidential, or about possible conflicts involving clients. Those rules are for real, paid legal advice, not for public forums. If lawyers really had to follow all those rules, then there would be no legal information offered on the Internet at all because Internet users could never really be identified or enjoy confidentiality–it would be impossible. So why don’t we have these types of forums that connect lawyers with the public? Why shouldn’t lawyers be able to offer general legal information (advice in other words) for free and not have to abide by stringent rules?
Then there’s the problem of someone suing a lawyer because they read legal information posted by that lawyer, followed it, and things didn’t go as planned. But I mean, come on, what court is going to allow that kind of case? Free information offered as a public service used to sue lawyers? It could happen I suppose, but lawyers are a cautious bunch that would never really offer actual legal advice on a public forum anyway–the best they’ll do is offer legal ‘information,’ and never call it ‘advice’ anyway. Besides that, on these types of forums–at least the ones that exist now (mainly in the US)–there are disclaimers all over the place stating that the information should never be construed as real legal advice and that one should always consult a lawyer, face-to-face for proper advice. Wouldn’t those disclaimers and the fact that the information offered is only general, allow lawyers to participate in legal forums as lawyers rather than as anonymous users? I think so; yet these question and answer forums that should exist really don’t, at least not in Canada at this time. One exception of course is this site, with its legal forum that links lawyers with the public, but it is only in its infancy. Hopefully more forums like this will pop up and lawyers will continue to do their part to help with access to justice in Canada—we can’t wait for government to do it!
Nancy Kinney B.A., LL.B
Founder of AdviceScene.com
Democratizing the law one question at a time