Today we expand on our Access-to-Justice themed week, with a discussion on Alberta’s court system. Today’s post emphasizes the role that the courts play in helping litigants navigate the legal process once they’ve been introduced to the system. When courts give better access to self-represented litigants, more people can afford to pursue a claim or defend a claim or charge before a judge.
We recently had the opportunity to interview the Honourable Judge Judith Shriar of the Provincial Court of Alberta. She sits in Calgary, as well as in regional areas near the city, on criminal and some civil matters.
Through her time on the bench, Judge Shriar has heard a variety of charges, litigants, and issues, though she noted that she hears a large number of drinking and driving related charges. Judge Shriar observed that men appear in her courtroom more often than women and she sees more younger defendants than older. She made special note that these demographics do not change drastically from urban to rural, or even reserve centres.
In our justice system, there is currently cause for concern for self-represented litigants to represent themselves in court. Judge Shriar noted that courts have implemented programs and resources to help litigants navigate the murky waters of the legal system. The Provincial Court has “done a great job of making tools available online for litigants to access,” Shriar said.
She further recognized that these resources have allowed self-represented litigants to become better equipped to handle their cases in court.
“I do think that people often do a good job on their own. Especially when people are unrepresented you see that people have really thought through their claim… they’re organized.”
However, there are always those who “slip through the cracks.” Sometimes a self-represented litigant faces an uphill battle during a dispute against a litigant with an experienced lawyer. When asked whether the judiciary has a responsibility to ensure that litigants are on equal playing fields, Judge Shriar confirmed that, though her jurisdiction to intervene is limited, she does what is appropriate within her position as an impartial judge to make litigants aware of the resources available to them, and even to step in when necessary to prevent gross injustices.
Another common area of concern is an increasing strain on limited court resources. Judge Shriar agrees that with respect to both manpower and infrastructure, the scarcity of court resources is an issue. In light of this problem Judge Shriar explained how Calgary’s Provincial Court has implemented programming to combat and mitigate the effects of diminishing resources.
She called Calgary’s Provincial Court a “leader across the province and the country,” when dealing with diminishing resources. For example, to deal with small overburdened rural courtrooms, regional dispositions are sometimes moved to Calgary. Setting aside a day for this purpose has helped to save time and effectively utilize the resources currently in place.
Another example is the Provincial Court's use of technology. For example, the court’s use of CCTV has reduced the need to transport parties and witnesses to courts. This eases the burden on support staff like sheriffs, clerks, and drivers.
When asked about the future of the courts and litigants’ ability to access and navigate them, Judge Shriar is optimistic. Since she was called to the bench, she has noticed many changes that increase both the efficiency of the court system and assist the courts in reaching appropriate verdicts. Specifically, technology and alternative dispute mechanisms have alleviated some of the pressures on the court system, while providing litigants with appropriate tools in which to solve their dispute.
However, more can be done.
We asked Judge Shriar what next steps the courts might take to continue to solve some of the issues individuals face when accessing the justice system. She said that, “the delay issue is critical. There were 15 charges dropped in Edmonton by a crown prosecutor to address these delay issues.”
“The courts do have a role to play in the process of helping to address root causes,” she said, and accordingly, we are likely to see an increase in “therapeutic courts, matrimonial courts, drug courts, and experimental programs.”
These measures will continue to funnel litigants out of the courtrooms while still providing them with the appropriate oversight. Solving disputes before trial, through programs such as mediation or judicial dispute resolution, saves both litigants and the courts time and money.
The Canadian justice system faces obstacles and challenges to provide fair and affordable access to its resources. It is clear at this point that Calgary’s Provincial Court has taken significant steps forward, leading Canada’s courts toward a future with a more accessible and balanced system of litigation and dispute resolution.