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Canada chief justice: public access to courts must be increased

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada [official website] warned Saturday that the public would lose faith in the Canadian legal system unless access to the courts is made available for everyone. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin [official profile], speaking at a news conference following an address to the Canadian Bar Association [official website], said that the high cost of litigation and inadequate staffing of the courts are preventing many people [CBC report] with limited financial means from being able to have their legal needs met. McLachlin stated that although there is no quick fix to correct the problem, lawyers, judges and the government should work together to ensure that the legal system works for the public good. McLachlin also emphasized that access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law, and unless public access to legal services is improved, people will lose respect for the courts. In her remarks, McLachlin noted that the issue is under review by the Action Committee on Access to Justice [backgrounder, PDF].

Access to legal services, particularly for low-income individuals and families, has been a contentious issue worldwide. Last week the Supreme Court of India ruled [JURIST report] that defendants are entitled to legal representation at all courts, not just at the trial level. In March JURIST guest columnist Robert Westley argued [JURIST op-ed] that a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] upholding the Washington state's cut to a food aid program for legal immigrants is a prime example of how constitutional formalism justifies leaving some members of the political community without the basic necessities. In February 2011 the Supreme Court of India held [JURIST report] that criminal defendants have a right to counsel under the Indian Constitution, regardless of their ability to pay.

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