Going through law school, I so often heard that it was a lawyer’s duty not to bring the justice system into disrepute. This always seemed like a hilarious statement to me. Personally, I come from a “modest means” background (that’s lawyers’ speak for saying I’m broke and from a trailer park). I grew up in a community where 30% of children live under the poverty line. A place where economic depression is the status quo and where honest hard-working people sell weed on top of working full-time and going to school so that they can pay their rent, feed their kids, and hope for a better future. Yet the system tries to put these people behind bars on mandatory minimums. I come from a place where domestic violence mixed with mental health and addictions issues are rampant. When you call the police on your drunk, mentally disturbed father who just pulled a shot gun on you, the system tells him that he has to complete one day of anger management, and that’s meant to solve the issue of ongoing domestic/substance abuse. When you come from a place like this, let’s just say you don’t have a lot of respect for authority. When you come from a place like this, saying don’t bring the justice system into disrepute just makes you laugh and think…was it ever reputable to begin with?
Now of course, not everyone comes from this perspective, but I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about the vast number of people who cannot access justice or have truncated access to it because of the unnecessary level of bureaucracy and outdated court processes and technology that increase legal costs and make it difficult, if not impossible, for these people to access justice without making an above average salary.
I’m also talking about the disturbing number of systemically oppressed people – immigrants, women, children, racialized, etc. that keenly understand how the system not only causes their oppression, but can further distance them from exercising their rights. The current procedure for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults, for example, is clearly beyond inadequate. This is exemplified by the mess that is the Ghomeshi case, and the vast under-reporting of sexual assaults. The Black Lives Matter movement illustrates the mass distrust of the criminal justice system, which prevents some from reporting crimes to the police for fear that they themselves will be prosecuted or abused in some other way as a result of reporting a crime committed against them.
I’m talking about the people who do not equate the words “justice system” with "justice", for which I am one. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am proud to work in the justice system as a lawyer. I’m proud to have the opportunity to help marginalized people maneuver through the system, and to be someone who understands what it’s like to have distrust for the very thing that you’re hoping will allow you to access your rights…this time. I also acknowledge that even though the justice system isn’t perfect, it does provide protection and dignity to many.
However, I see too many flaws and too often. I see that our current system was born from and still imitates feudalism, where inequality and unchecked intergenerational privilege make a mockery of our constitutional rights. These flaws truncate individual rights proving the system to be illegitimate in the eyes of many. Put simply, the system betrays many of its own people. It disrespects the rights and dignity of those who have no meaningful say in how the law is created, maintained, or carried out.
It’s no wonder to me that so many people question the integrity and decency of the people who carry out the day-to-day functions of the justice system. After all, these people are working within a system that systemically and negatively targets a lot of the people. Despite the fact that I am one of these people, I myself am tired of explaining the law that we as lawyers have to follow and the conditions under which we are meant to practice.
I am tired of telling my clients that psychological/sexual abuse is not adequately recognized in our system as a criminal offence, despite the fact that we have decades of scientific research that states it causes long-term brain damage and severe mental and physical health issues. I’m tired of explaining that in sentencing hearings the lack of family support and job prospects disproportionately negatively affect racialized/immigrant populations that have been separated from their support networks and have fewer employment opportunities. I’m especially tired of walking into youth criminal court and seeing that nearly all of the defendants are Black kids and nearly all of the lawyers are White.
So, I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that instead of telling law students and lawyers not to bring the justice system into disrepute, I think we should be teaching them to question how we can bring the justice system into good standing, for all people, period. I know that what I have written here may seem very negative and critical. Hell, I’d even agree with that. However, I am saying these things because I am optimistic that things can change, but not without a critical view of how the system is working, or not working.
One thing that can help is to provide more opportunities for marginalized people to become and stay part of the system. With increased diversity, the system will have access to a variety of perspectives and strategies for solving this problem.
For example, Dalhousie University introduced the Indigenous Black and Mi'kmaq Initiative (IB&M), which was born from the Marshall Inquiry that investigated the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall resulting from inherent racism in the justice system. To date, more than 150 Black and Aboriginal people have graduated from the program.
However, to keep people such as the IB&M graduates practicing and contributing to the issues discussed above, it will be necessary to change the legal culture to allow for these perspectives to not just survive but flourish. We must begin to recognize that marginalized people often have a disproportionate amount of work and stress inside and outside the professional sphere. Therefore, it may be necessary to have continuing workshops on cultural competence, so as to ensure that poisoned work environments don’t push people to the sidelines. It may be necessary to have more flexible work hours, in-house daycares, etc. for the many women (and some men) that would be pushed to the sidelines in their career because they are the primary care-givers to children.
Increasing opportunities for marginalized people to become and stay part of the justice system is just one way to combat the disrepute of the system that is already present in the minds of many. But it is important to ask what else can we do to bring the justice system into the reputable sphere.