I’ll begin by stating that I have edited this post quite a few times. Due to the subject matter discussed, I believe that clarity, accuracy, and fidelity to the spirit and tone of the overall message that I’m aiming to convey are all more crucial elements here than in most of my other entries. I acknowledge this, and I’m especially concerned about the message that this post will convey. In order to address social awareness of sensitivity problems which stem from equality issues, I will explain access to justice, parts of the Canadian legal system, and the roles of students and lawyers who choose to volunteer their time to assist people who could use the legal help. My goal is to explain certain concepts in the way that they are relevant to this post, but without conceptually undermining or oversimplifying them. I encourage my readers to consider the context of the message, if not for proper framing, then at least for the sake of clarity.

Alright now! With that out of the way, let’s begin by talking about access to justice in Canada.

Many volunteers contribute their resources or skills to organisations which enable access to justice for those who might otherwise be marginalised or disadvantaged, due to a lack of means to pay for legal counsel. For my American friends, I will clarify one point: in Canada, we do not have a ‘right to an attorney’ in the same sense as your Miranda Rights in criminal proceedings. In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the right to legal counsel is indeed constitutionally entrenched (see section 10-b.), but a lawyer is not provided to those who cannot afford one. This essentially distinguishes Canadian criminal law from our neighbours to the south in the sense that our right to counsel is a negative right. In Canada, one cannot be denied access to an attorney, but one who cannot afford representation still needs to qualify for legal aid or other help in order to actually have one. Due to the song and dance of the qualifications for legal aid and other assistance, many people who cannot afford this help actually do not meet the income level requirements to qualify for it. The unfortunate truth is that these people, who cannot afford legal counsel, simply need to go without. Oftentimes, especially in civil matters, these people merely need some helpful information or third party mediation. On many other occasions, having to do without help disadvantages people not only in the obvious ways, but it manifests unfavourably in actual court proceedings as well. There is a highly specialised etiquette to trial procedures, which when not followed, frustrates the bench. As unbiased as a judge is theoretically supposed to be, pissing this person off is never a good thing. An individual attempting to represent himself will naturally become frustrated by all of this as well. It isn’t simply knowledge of the law that legal counsel provides, but also knowledge of the environment and culture. Most people do not know this, unless they have attempted to represent themselves in court.

The Canadian legal system is not perfect; however, it is quite an exquisite beauty. With only a few exceptions, I marvel at the equity, fairness, and protections of rights, that it embraces, upholds, and promotes. Of course, this also makes it extremely complex. This would be the reason that it takes years of specialised education, work, and articling, just to get called to a provincial bar. It takes a special kind of person not only to become a lawyer (nope, no bias here lol), but to excel as a lawyer too. Freshly minted lawyers demonstrate tireless drive and dedication, and put in excessively long hours of work. Many succumb to substance abuse or develop other psychological issues, simply because they do not have the constitution to withstand the pressures of succeeding, or because their personal endeavours and relationships suffer from this strain. The strongest are the ones who can survive and flourish under these circumstances. Legal representation comes at a premium not only for the expertise of your lawyer, but for the countless years of sacrifice it takes to acquire it.

Without adequate representation, it is not only criminal cases that typically become stacked against those who do not possess expertise to represent themselves, but also civil, estate, family, immigration, and human rights issues. Therefore, access to justice is a critical element to the success of hundreds of thousands of Canadian cases. If you did click on the last link (thanks!), then you likely found the Canadian Bar Association’s links to the ‘World Justice Project’ and the ‘Reaching Equal Justice’ report, but even without perusing these it is apparent by the summary of the CBA’s ‘Equal Justice Initiative’ that Canada struggles arguably far more than it ought to with this issue. While for the most part I have little interest in the areas of law that equal justice impacts, I do recognise the tremendous importance in the role that organisations designed to bridge these gaps in access to justice play. It is the principle of the matter, in my eyes. There’s no question that I value the underlying concepts of our legal system, but I believe that their reflections of the foundation of our free and democratic society become jeopardised when ‘justice’ is determined by the size of one’s bank account. How wonderful our legal system is becomes irrelevant once it becomes a game that can only really be won by the privileged, – and it really isn’t that wonderful in these cases now, is it.

In a nutshell, this is why I personally decide to devote my time to certain organisations.

Most people who volunteer their time alongside of me are also students who hope to become lawyers, one magical day. Some are advocates. Many are lawyers already, who practise in the areas mentioned above. Lawyers are the ones who provide legal guidance, and everyone else runs the show on administrative levels. The latter two categories of volunteers tend to be there because they believe in access to justice, and it’s a fantastic thing to see. I will qualify what I am about to say about students specifically by stating that the majority of all three categories of volunteers really do want to help and make some kind of a difference. However, the first category of individuals who volunteer their time, who like me are also students, are a bit of a mixed bag at times. Some students feel that this sort of activity will make them look good on paper or add contacts to their professional rolodexes, but their hearts are not really in the game. And you know what? It shows.

How does it show? Well, let’s talk about sensitivity training. Let’s talk about the fact that it even exists to begin with.

Sensitivity training is that thing that you see in organisations that are cognizant of wider social issues which lead to inequalities or unfair treatment within their own microcultures or walls. This training is designed to eradicate, or at least lessen, unfair treatment based on race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, economic or social class, and the like, that might otherwise surface in everyday interactions or in policies and procedures. Here, sensitivity is addressed, and potential problems are resolved in these organisations before they become legal or cultural problems. Sometimes this training is imposed as a result of an existing problem. Nonetheless, it serves to raise awareness of inequalities.

Sensitivity training is not a part of training for administrative volunteers in the organisation I allocate my time to, mainly due to scarcity of resources. Volunteers are rigorously screened, of course, but inevitably some who could use a crash course on basic human decency – err, I mean, sensitivity – tend to slip through the cracks. This is not anyone’s fault at all, but really more because students who want the experience that volunteering at an organisation such as this provides on their CVs will tend to place their best persona forward during the screening process. At times such as these, personal belief in equality (equity, actually) is fabricated, feigned, or overstated by these students. All in the name of getting that foot in the door. Sigh. I don’t believe that these students necessarily do this intentionally, but I do believe that this is perhaps an indication that there is still some need for personal growth or awareness on their parts. Perhaps it is an indication that sensitivity needs to be cultured and developed, and it might not be their fault that they have not had the opportunity to do this yet. An argument could even be made that this volunteer experience would be a good vehicle for this growth, although I contend that this would initially come at a cost to others.

What puts an angry knot in my stomach, though, is the fact that a human being would even need ‘sensitivity training’ in order to view (or at least to treat) one who is less advantaged as a human being who is worthy of basic respect and receipt of decency in everyday interactions. This is a societal problem, and it runs deep. Let’s keep in mind that the majority of university students are privileged to begin with, especially ones who can afford to donate their time instead of use this same time to earn funds. I am not going to pretend that this statement does not include my own position.

Sometimes, student volunteers exhibit two shortcomings – which also tell me two things about them: 1) Lack of knowledge of what a lawyer can, cannot, ought, and ought not, do – which tells me that they are not very good students, as this is taught even at the undergraduate level. Even without having taken classes that teach this, it does not take much resourcefulness to learn a little bit about something one supposedly wants to do for a living! 2) Lack of sensitivity – which tells me that they place people from different walks of life on some form of a hierarchy.

To address the first shortcoming, I will say the following: Canadian lawyers, like any other skilled professionals, have what is called a duty of care to any person they advise. Whether advice is dispensed casually between friends or neighbours, in a paid meeting, or provided pro bono, the standard of this care must be upheld – and this standard does not change based on the aforementioned circumstances. Any individual reliant on said advice can (and ought to!) hold a lawyer accountable to it. Test this out one day. Demand advice from your friend Bob or Sally the tax or corporate lawyer about an immigration (or whatever) case, and tell your friend that you are really counting on his or her expertise. Bob’s or Sally’s ensuing discomfort will be a real laugh-riot! 😛

As a volunteer service to provide access to justice to those who cannot otherwise afford it, lawyers who provide advice need to be very careful not to provide information which may be outdated or incorrect. This means that a lawyer who only practices family law (and who therefore knows very little about another area) will be extremely hesitant – or outright refuse – to provide legal guidance to someone who needs help with a criminal offence, employment issue, or what-have-you. A good lawyer will feel this way for liability reasons, but a good person will also genuinely care about the possible moral and ethical ramifications to these scenarios. If I handed a set of golf clubs to a tennis player and expected her to be equally skilled at the game merely because she is an athlete, I would be erroneous in my assumption that this athlete could play any/every sport equally well. If my livelihood depended on her ability to play golf with the same level of skill as she plays tennis, I might be in trouble. Same kind of idea. A good administrative volunteer will never attempt to push a case on a lawyer that is outside of his area of expertise, regardless of how short-handed the clinic may be on a given day or evening. A good person will understand why it is a bad idea.

And now for the lacking in sensitivity… The fact that these particular clients are not paying for the advice or possible legal representation that is provided to them does not render them less worthy of the exact same standards as clients who are billed hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars for it. For a volunteer to say that a client who is not paying should be ‘grateful’ to see any kind of lawyer at all, and not expect to receive the same level of service or respect as one who is billed, this is dangerous and flat-out ignorant. It demonstrates such a deficiency of knowledge on liability of skilled professionals that it is actually pretty scary. Coming from any individual who supposedly participates in the legal community in one capacity or another (even as an administrative volunteer), it’s an embarrassment. I will not excuse this, as it is generously reasonable to expect a lack of knowledge to be pre-empted or remedied. The main concern, though, is that a statement such as this exhibits an attitude that some people are better than others.

This is where sensitivity comes in.

There is no excuse to cancel or reschedule an appointment without communicating this to the client. There is no excuse to make someone wait for hours on end on the other side of a little glass wall, without explaining delays to this person. There is no excuse for rude jokes or derogatory language, whether one believes that clients can hear this kind of thing or not. The fact that the service is ‘free’ (many of these people need babysitters, use hours of their time to travel from outside of the city, bring translators, etc., – so ‘free’ still taps the small amount of resources they have!) is in no way, shape, or form, justification for this lack of respect for those who have been able to make it in for their appointments.

I am not a saint by any stretch of the imagination. One of my bigger flaws that I’m currently working on is that half (read: most) of the time, I can be blunt to a fault. That aside, I do have my heart 110% in the game; I say and do what I mean, and mean what I do and say. I don’t believe I would have any business helping people who need it if I did not believe them deserving of said help. It is hardly necessary to be an advocate for access to justice to be a good lawyer, unless the areas of law that interest one tend to overlap with this issue. Even then, the necessity of sincerity is debatable. I have already stated that the areas of law which interest me are not typically impacted by access to justice issues, but I would consider myself a hypocrite if I participated in our justice system in any way, yet did not seek to contribute to its improvement as a whole. That’s just my bag, though. I am not attempting to claim any kind of moral high-ground over others who might feel differently.

To actively involve oneself in the arena of volunteer work which supports those who are not as fortunate as others, though, – I believe that the ‘heart’ component is necessary. Clients see it. They do not need to be victimised by a system any further than they already are. They do not need to be treated as though they are somehow less deserving of justice than others who have more financial resources than they do. Using an organisation designed to promote the opposite of this just to get some kind of credit or competitive advantage to obtaining employment for it, at the expense of these people, is a form of indirect usury. Yes, I said it! And this is just not okay in my books.

Any motive that is intentionally disingenuous to the very root of these organisations makes me seriously question the personal morality of the person contributing his or her time. It is wildly inappropriate to the spirit of the donation of time – and to the spirit of the organisation. Fortunately, I have only come across this once, and it would be unfair for me to definitively say that this person was truly aware of his or her lack of knowledge or sensitivity. I will not excuse lack of knowledge, because my position on that has already been stated clearly: it is reasonable enough to expect measures which pre-empt or remedy this problem. For lack of sensitivity, as stated already, I don’t necessarily believe that when this kind of thing happens that it is intentional, – but this doesn’t make it less of a problem.

Everyone grows and evolves as human beings at different paces, and even the most brilliant of us have our own challenges on that front. Sensitivity in particular is a tough nut to crack, as the root of its lacking lies in the very fabric of our society. The truth is, that for all of our collective efforts to come together as a society and embrace one another’s differences, on the individual level we are all guilty of short-sightedness of the circumstances of others. Hierarchies exist everywhere, and they affect outlooks and attitudes. Messages about who we are, and who others are, are constantly streamed to our psyches from birth. I’m not merely speaking of roles we adopt or where we each sit on these hierarchies, but how these things become intertwined with our very senses of personal identity. This makes for any issue stemming from here a tough nut to crack, indeed. I will spare you the academic version of my analysis of the sociological elements at play, and leave it at that (rather un-academic) ‘tough nut’ statement.

I suppose I felt the need to get this off my chest, as it bothers me when I see manifestations of insensitivity surface, especially in environments where I feel that a lack of knowledge or sensitivity carry the potential to create multiple layers of damage on professional, societal, and individual levels. Matters of this nature actually do occupy my mind at night. They weigh on me.

I’d love to have the power to change our crazy planet into a more fair and just place, but I’d be a fool to believe that this could ever be accomplished by one person. I’m not naïve enough to propose that I, or any other person alone, would be capable of ‘changing the world’ by writing in a silly blog, but what I am saying is that it is important to contribute to the conversation about social awareness and sensitivity. This is the first step to embarking on what appears to be a very long and arduous journey. The road ahead is not only difficult for our society, but it is one which humanity as a collective hasn’t quite committed itself to yet.