By Beryl Wajsman
It is not often that one can state clearly that a government initiative is unconditionally right and just. But we can do so this week. The news that the Couillard government is fast-tracking the doubling of the ceiling on small claims court cases from $7,000 to $15,000 is good news indeed.
The protection of our freedoms and individual dignity is first and foremost assured by our justice system. But when justice becomes too difficult—when courts are overburdened, lawyers too expensive and procedures too cumbersome—how can we make the claim that we have a just society? Access to justice and due process must be within the reach of all.
Raising small claims court limits will mean that citizens will not necessarily need lawyers to seek redress. Procedures in small claims court are simplified so more citizens will have access and not feel intimidated or overwhelmed. Lawyers fees will not be an obstacle to obtaining justice. And since much of the guidance is from the bench, we will probably see more judges named—as we did the last time limits were raised—thereby lightening the load on an already overburdened general court system. It is a victory all around.
The new ceilings may come into effect as early as January since the bill passed first reading last Tuesday Oct. 7.
Kudos to Fabre MNA Gilles Ouimet for doing so much of the heavy lifting to assure consent and passage. The opposition parties have indicated that they too favor this initiative and its speedy implementation.
Professionally, Ouimet was a noted and respected criminal lawyer. He was also Batonnier of the Montreal and Quebec bars. His words carry weight and they are words of compassion. As he told our Robert Frank this week, “In justice, it is of foremost importance that citizens understand how the law of the land applies to them. It’s essential that these laws are simple to understand and apply, so as to avoid needless debate and needless litigation in the enforcement of our laws.” And that is something that the small claims court jurisdiction can do.
Experience has shown that not only are disputes resolved more expeditiously, but because the court has a greater role to play, people are guided and educated about how our legal system can serve them. But, of course this is not a panacea.
We still have to come to terms with the fact that access to justice is difficult, not only because lawyers are expensive, but because regular courts are so full that justice is almost always delayed. And for that reason is often denied. We need more judges, as well as court reform whereby certain classes of cases—such as family law—are dealt with in family courts as Ontario has.
Legal aid is not readily available for civil disputes. The pro bono lists of our Bar associations are not well advertised or promoted even though some of our best senior attorneys put their names on them year after year. Sadly, they are rarely called even though they are ready to help the vulnerable in need.
Justice Holmes was right when he said that, “Justice must be seen to be done as well as to be done.” So we should celebrate every time there is news of some progress. But we must remain vigilant. We must remember that too often the privileged still prey on the weak. And that the goal of judicial reform is a never ending one guided by the faith that we have an obligation to guard against our justice system becoming nothing more than a two-edged sword of craft and oppression.