Access to Justice is Access to Information

Sep 21, 2020 | Access to Justice

Access to justice is not only access to a courthouse, is not only access to a judge; it’s also access to information. Access to justice is access to information. 

Rt. Hon. Richard Wagner, P.C., Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

This quote comes from a July 2020 interview conducted by AC Friends of Court Executive Director Dom Bautista posted to YouTube on September 17th.

The Chief Justice went on to say:

When I became chief one of my goals was to make the court more accessible and in doing so you can do many things. […W]e decided to issue what we call now the cases in brief. So on one page we decided to summarize the legal issues in accessible terms that everybody can understand without having any expertise in the legal world. So the cases in brief were very popular and they are still very popular and at first it was designed to be read by the citizens of this country, but we learned quite rapidly that it was used by other judges, by lawyers, by the media, so it has a very useful purpose and I’m very happy with that.

So in terms of access in terms of openness, that was one way to do it. We have other initiatives like the year in review […] it’s the annual review of our activities for the last year […] the cases that were heard, what activities the judges were involved in, and so on and so forth. So that’s part again to access to justice because it provides information to the citizens of this country to allow them to know us, to know the judges, to know the courts, how we do things. Because how can you have trust in somebody that you don’t know you have to know? [Y]ou have to provide the knowledge.

[Emphasis mine, transcription from YouTube, edited for clarity]

Canada benefits from an Open Court systems that generally treats judicial activities and reasons for judgment as publicly accessible information. While not all courts (or administrative tribunals) publish their judgments on their own website, the non-profit Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) exists as a place where most publishable judgments can be discovered and read. [Disclosure: it was my pleasure and honour to serve as President and CEO of CanLII from 2011 to 2015].

Nonetheless, Canada is well behind the United States and many other countries in terms of the variety of access methods available and the scope of who can access large collections of judicial opinions. Paraphrasing and extending the words of the Chief Justice, it might be said that Canada has work to do to achieve the benefits of transparency, knowledge and trust that can come from the deeper awareness of Canadian law and court activity.

With the inauguration of the the Legal Innovation Data Institute (LIDI), Canada will soon benefit from the efforts of LIDI members and collaborators to explore court activity in greater detail and advance citizen awareness of Canadian law and court activity. Naturally, there are limits to what can be learned from deeper analysis of judicial opinions, or from judicial analytics generally. That said, there are 2 errors we can make about the value of bulk legal data. The first is to believe that machine analytics can mine the past well enough to predict the future, and the second is believe that analyzing the imperfect sets available today offer no value or opportunity to understand, learn and benefit from the analysis.

Reality lies in the middle. There are enormous insights available from application of text mining and machine learning models to Canadian law. It’s the purpose of those efforts and the quality of those insights that will determine the value. While Canada is indeed behind most countries in making these efforts, we will benefit from the lessons learned elsewhere. Moreover, we can reasonably anticipate that research and development efforts here will focus on the more fruitful and beneficial pathways and successfully avoid the pitfalls and dead-ends encountered by others.