20 years of access to justice: looking back, looking forward

December 5, 2017

20 years of access to justice: looking back, looking forward

A deeper understanding of ongoing and emerging issues and renewed optimism to address them

Twenty years ago, The Law Foundation of Ontario presented the Guthrie Award for the first time. Since then, the Foundation has recognized 13 leaders for excellence and their commitment to access to justice.

On the anniversary of the award, Foundation staff spoke to Guthrie recipients and friends of the Foundation about our progress in advancing access to justice over the past 20 years and where we are heading in the next 20 years.

The people we spoke with are access to justice leaders from a range of different communities and organizations. They are part of the network of access to justice champions that the Foundation has built and been part of over its more than 40-year history. The energy and passion that these leaders bring to their work is reflected in their successes and in their thoughtful approach to the issues that we continue to work on together. Their insights reinforced and elaborated on what the Foundation knows from its own work as a grantmaker, and we are happy to share them with you.

What do we know?

Not enough has changed

We are facing many of the same issues we faced 20 years ago: people still have unmet legal needs; despite recent funding increases legal aid is not available to all who need it; community legal clinics are stretched thin; and different communities have unequal access to justice. The justice system still struggles to respond and adapt to the changing needs of users in all their diversity.

The Foundation works on these challenges every day. Seventy five percent of our revenue goes directly to Legal Aid Ontario to support its work. Through Connecting Communities and other granting streams, we fund efforts to link community partners to legal clinics and provide high quality public legal education to Ontarians across the province. We engage with a range of community-based organizations, and we provide annual grants to each law school in Ontario, which are used to improve diversity in the legal profession, provide experiential learning opportunities, and expand the availability of services in communities across the province.

The progress that has been achieved in the past 20 years has been uneven. People we spoke with noted that the rates of youth incarceration have dropped but not for Black or Indigenous youth. Rates of violence against women remain high, and Indigenous women in particular face unbearably high rates of gender-based violence. The criminal justice system still struggles to give effect to Charter rights and resolve charges without undue delay. The legal system has been slow to adapt to the diversity of Ontarians and problematic norms and stereotypes continue to impede access to justice, whether they are about women who have experienced gender-based violence or about low-income, racialized, and Indigenous people across multiple areas of law. The full human impact of the access to justice crisis is still not universally understood.

The Foundation sees all of these issues in our work. Recently, we funded efforts to educate Indigenous, Black, and Muslim youth, as well as youth experiencing mental illness and youth in priority neighbourhoods in the GTA, about criminal law and policing. A grant to Aboriginal Legal Services resulted in a video to help the families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. We funded the John Howard Society and others to work on bail. We funded METRAC to address the diverse needs of those experiencing gender-based violence using an anti-oppression lens. The Foundation has made grants to further research to help understand, explain, and improve access to justice, including grants to understand police response to domestic violence calls in northern Ontario and to increase coordination and integration in access to justice services.

As the Foundation knows from the requests we receive and the grants we fund, new challenges have arisen in the last 20 years:

  • Islamophobia post-911 has taken on new forms, including racial profiling with troubling consequences in an era where different countries and levels of government share policing data
  • Rates of self-representation, particularly in family law, are increasing
  • Rates of unionization are dropping and work is becoming more precarious

Foundation funding to update a ‘Know your rights‘ guide for Muslim Canadians, to continue the work of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, and to support the Worker’s Action Centre keep us at the forefront of addressing emerging issues as they are identified by community organizations and legal partners.

There have been some successes

Over the Foundation’s 40-plus year existence, we have contributed to the rise of a pro bono culture amongst lawyers and law students led by Pro Bono Ontario and Pro Bono Students Canada. We have worked to make sure young people are engaged in questions of justice through our support for the Ontario Justice Education Network, Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust, Level, SKETCH, and others. The Foundation has pioneered new ways to engage community organizations and frontline workers in access to justice work through the Connecting Communities project hosted by Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) and through our regional Connecting Ottawa project, which links legal and social services through a network of agencies working together to improve outcomes for clients.

When we reached out to experts and friends of the Foundation, people felt that there has been progress on equity and inclusion. Deepa Mattoo, Legal Director at the Guthrie-award winning Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, emphasized that: “We used to talk about racism and human rights in a very polite tone, it was in the backdrop of conversations but now it is at the forefront”. Ms Mattoo went on to explain that, over the past 20 years, our understanding of access to justice has expanded beyond the historical emphasis on criminal law to include family law, immigration, migrant rights, and workers rights.

We have a better sense of legal needs and how they manifest for different groups. Efforts, including the Civil Legal Needs Study, a joint research initiative conducted by the Law Society of Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario, and Pro Bono Ontario, and supported by the Foundation, have contributed to a richer understanding of people’s experiences of their legal problems and the legal system, including the diversity and severity of those needs. As the most recent Guthrie Award recipient Reem Bahdi notes: “The debates and policy discussions are not rich enough, but they exist. That is a really welcome development”.

Many pointed to the Foundation’s contribution to advancing access to justice over the past 20 years through our work supporting:

  • The development of services to respond to the unique needs of linguistic and newcomer communities, including funding the development of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario and the Connecting Project, which focuses on access to justice for linguistic minorities and rural populations
  • The revitalization of Indigenous legal traditions beginning with a grant to the Indigenous Bar Association in 2011 and continuing in 2017 with projects with the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, the Union of Ontario Indians, and the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres
  • The promotion of legal education and supporting efforts to raise the public’s awareness of their rights
  • Interdisciplinary efforts to improve access to justice and bridging the gap between legal and social services

What's the biggest access to justice achievement in the last 20 years?

Where are we going?

People agreed that we are facing serious issues and that this is a pivotal period. Some emphasized that access to justice means more than having a system that people can access to resolve their legal problems, it also means stemming the flow of people into the system. From carding to the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the criminal and child protection systems to racial profiling in relation to national security, work needs to be done to ensure equal access to and application of the law, especially for Indigenous peoples and racialized Ontarians. There is a serious and continuing question of whether the system provides credible responses to acts of gender-based violence.

The Foundation has a unique window into these trends and others through its grantmaking. We continue to receive exciting grant proposals exploring new solutions, including community-led efforts to improve overrepresentation in both the child protection and criminal law systems. The Foundation works with organizations taking an intersectional and anti-oppression approach, collaborating, and innovating to improve responses to gender-based violence. METRAC, Luke’s Place, the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, Springtide, and others are leading efforts to pioneer new approaches and responses to a longstanding problem.

Some of the people we spoke with made bold predictions. It was suggested that, in 20 years, few of the ‘classic’ access to justice challenges will remain. Nye Thomas, Executive Director of the Law Commission of Ontario, predicted that, for example, people will not need to make their way to a court as more disputes will be resolved online. We may not need interpretation and translation services to facilitate access to justice because new technology will permit high quality translation without the use of intermediaries. More disputes will be settled privately and we will have to consider new questions, such as, “What procedural or substantive law rights do we have in a world in which digitization, artificial intelligence, and automated dispute resolution are increasingly dominant?” The Foundation will continue to ask how, in these changing times, we put people at the heart of justice and help people understand and use the law to improve their lives.

The Foundation is leading and supporting efforts to make sure we are moving in the right direction. For example, the Foundation has supported CLEO as it looks for new solutions to help people find high quality public legal information. CLEO’s Steps to Justice, which has the support of the Ministry of the Attorney General, the courts and judges, the Law Society of Ontario, and community organizations, allows organizations to embed CLEO’s content into their own website, helping to ensure that there is no wrong door to high quality legal information in Ontario. The Foundation is also conducting more research and evaluation and sharing its efforts to understand what works to advance access to justice and what does not. In 2017, we published a program evaluation that shared learnings about the use of articling students to expand access to justice for rural populations and linguistic minorities. In 2018, we will share the findings from research into how best to engage frontline workers and community agencies in access to justice work.

How will we get there?

Working together

The Foundation prioritizes collaboration, cross-sector partnerships, and bridge-building in all of its work. Time and again the people we spoke with emphasized the benefits of working in coalition. The Honourable Roy McMurtry said: “Relationships, the ability to connect and build friendships across difference – that’s how I got things done”.

As the diversity of Ontario increases, the need to collaborate increases. Ziyaad Mia, a volunteer with the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, explained how 9/11 galvanized middle class Muslims and created opportunities for coalition building: “Middle class Muslims in the suburbs are now affected by overpolicing. As a result, those communities now share experiences with Black and Indigenous communities, which creates a broader coalition to organize for positive change around issues involving policing, justice, and civil rights”.

Pamela Cross, Legal Director at Luke’s Place, explained the success that was achieved in the mid-2000s when women from many communities came together and found an Attorney General who was open to collaboration. Ms Cross said: “The discussion about the role of religious arbitration in family law matters resulted in significant and quick changes to the law”. The Family Law Education for Women project, a legacy of this work, provides public legal education and is co-funded by the Foundation and the Ontario Women’s Directorate.

Julie Mathews, Executive Director of CLEO and a Guthrie recipient, described how the successes of the Steps to Justice project, funded in part by the Foundation, resulted from partnerships and collaboration: “Even those from outside CLEO put their all into it and wanted it to succeed. Many of the champions didn’t have the resources to do the work themselves, but they saw the need. Others were willing to give up control and participate in a joint initiative”.

Keep educating ourselves and our communities

People spoke about the continuing importance of public legal education, including efforts to inform community members about their rights in the ‘grey zones’ where the law is put into practice. Teaching people about the law can empower them to navigate day-to-day interactions with police and other state actors. As Ziyaad Mia explained: “If people are charged, there is a process in place to ensure some level of transparency and rights protection. However, in this grey area of national security investigations, people under investigation don’t know what’s going on and there is little, if any, opportunity for due process and transparency”. Recently, the Foundation provided funding to the Ontario Justice Education Network to bring youth from priority neighbourhoods into dialogue with police. We also provided funding to the Grand Council Treaty 3 to deliver workshops to share legal information with young Indigenous people, their families, and community members. These grants, and others, build a culture of rights in Ontario that help people navigate situations with people who may infringe upon their rights and promotes respect for rights on the part of those who have more power in these interactions.

With hope and optimism

Those of us who work to advance access to justice are hopeful and optimistic. When we asked people what the future holds, many were initially pessimistic. However, when prompted, we heard a lot of hope. By way of example, Deepa Mattoo shared this: “I have an 11-year old daughter and when we engage on issues, I see the difference. I see how far we have come on LGBTQ rights. It’s so easy and natural for her – she doesn’t have that baggage, that hatred, that we grew up with that was in our social fabric. She looks at rights in a very different way. Talking to her, I can see what is possible”.

Many located their sense of optimism in the energy and passion they see in young people, law students, and those who have dedicated their careers to advancing access to justice, like our Guthrie Award recipients. We live in a time of possibility. Canadians are engaged in a broad national debate about access to justice driven by the judiciary, including Chief Justice McLachlin and former Supreme Court Justice Cromwell. Government is responding with unprecedented levels of funding for legal aid and innovative efforts to modernize and improve the justice system.

The Law Society of Ontario and the faculties of law are providing leadership and support for access to justice efforts. New players, like the Winkler Institute at Osgoode Hall and the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University, are creating space for innovation and new solutions to emerge. Legal Aid Ontario and the community legal clinics remain strong advocates for access to justice, serving those with the greatest need. Nonprofits and community agencies and activists across the province and the country are engaging in the issues that matter to their communities. Some people we spoke with pointed to movements, like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, and leaders within those movements who are marshalling the best of old and new tools to put forward an ambitious agenda. Dania Majid, President of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association and staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said, “On the grassroots level, it’s good to see movements developing and pushing forward in a fearless manner that is uncompromising, intelligent, persistent – that is where I see that hope coming from”.

Guthrie recipient Judith McCormack noted: “Social justice work has never been more essential, and, fortunately, there are still many people who respond to these challenges”. She also admitted that this work “requires an almost insane degree of optimism and stubbornness”. Many noted that, unless you were an essentially hopeful person, you could not do this work. Yet, the benefits of doing it were also highlighted. As the Honourable Roy McMurtry put it, “I felt the value of service”.

Twenty years from now, what do you hope we will have achieved for access to justice?

What role will the Foundation play in the next 20 years?

The people we spoke with had advice for the Foundation, too. They pointed out gaps that we should continue to work on addressing, including:

  • Research into system-level changes to improve access and trim down the process to get people effective justice solutions quickly
  • Work to prevent legal problems from arising in the first place
  • Triaging and filtering services so that people can connect with what they need
  • Developing new ways to bring services to people who may not have the ability to go to the services

People also highlighted things the Foundation should continue doing, including:

  • Work to build bridges among the legal sector, social services, technology, and others
  • Support for empirical research to help understand and respond to access to justice challenges
  • Pipeline programs to ’pull the right people from communities’ to work in the justice system
  • Public legal education and justice education for youth and newcomers to keep building a culture of rights and engagement with the law
  • Opportunities for core funding
  • Make sure that different voices are heard and given a platform
  • Collaborate and work effectively with grantees

The Foundation’s efforts to support people doing this work will continue, including Public Interest Articling Fellowships to help young lawyers start a career in social justice and the Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship, which allows frontline nonprofit leaders to spend time in an academic setting, exploring new ideas and sharing what they have learned with a new generation of students.

Over the last 20 years, the Foundation has honoured 13 access to justice champions with our signature Guthrie Award. Since the inception of the Foundation, we have allocated more than $1 billion in funding to Legal Aid Ontario and to a wide variety of organizations and initiatives. As we look forward to the next 20 years, we are confident that the ever-expanding network of organizations and leaders with whom we work will continue to find solutions that advance access to justice for all Ontarians and continue to put people at the heart of justice.

Thank you to all those who took the time to speak with us

Guthrie Award recipients:

  • Reem Bahdi (2017)
  • Julie Mathews (2015)
  • Kimberly Murray (2014)
  • The Honourable Stephen T. Goudge (2013)
  • Judith McCormack (2011)
  • Deepa Mattoo, representing the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic (2009)
  • The Honourable Roy McMurtry (2005)


  • Pamela Cross of Luke’s Place
  • Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
  • Dania Majid of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association
  • Nye Thomas of the Law Commission of Ontario

Friends of the Foundation

  • Karen Cohl of Crystal Resolution Inc.
  • Ziyaad Mia, a senior member of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association
  • George Thomson, former provincial court judge, former Deputy Minister of Justice, and former Deputy Attorney General
  • Amy Wah of the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario