Access to Justice and the Importance of Pro Bono Work

Keynote Address at the Annual Program Launch of Pro Bono Students Canada (Queen’s University Chapter)
The Honourable Shirzad Ahmed, September 21, 2021

It is a pleasure to be here today for this year’s Launch Event for the Queen’s University Chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada. Thank you to the organizers for inviting me to speak, as well as the student volunteers for engaging in this meaningful work early on in your legal careers. Before addressing the topic of today’s speech, I must emphasize that I speak from my own perspective, and not on behalf of the Federal Court.

For this speech, I was asked to discuss the issue of access to justice and whypro bono work continues to be important for a new generation of lawyers such as yourselves. I shall begin by providing some general remarks on pro bonowork and the issue of access to justice, and then discuss how these concepts apply in particular to you as law students and future legal professionals.

The word pro bono is taken from the Latin word pro bono publico, which means “for the public good.”  To work pro bonois thus, in my view, to enhance the public good by providing legal services to those who face barriers in accessing justice. Such work includes representing individuals who are otherwise unable to retain counsel, providing services that are otherwise unavailable, and bringing to light issues through research and advocacy. As volunteers for Pro Bono Students Canada, you have the unique opportunity to engage in such work by assisting a variety of organizations, which provide services to groups that too often face barriers in accessing justice, or which address issues that too often do not garner the attention that they deserve.

Pro bonowork is a moral imperative of the legal profession, a profession that prides itself on ensuring that justice is achieved to the fullest extent possible under the law. As legal services become more costly and economic inequality increases, there is a pressing need for the profession to undertake pro bonowork to meet its laudable goals. While working for private-paying clients can bring justice for the parties involved, it rarely increases access to justice by providing legal services to the growing number of persons who are otherwise unable to obtain them.

Working with organizations that provide free legal services -- whether it be through legal aid, a community clinic, or an advocacy organization -- is therefore necessary to ensure that all segments of society are able to participate in our legal system, which is a prerequisite for producing equitable and just outcomes. If marginalized individuals are unable to substantively access and engage with the legal system, we do not have a system that is fair; rather, we have one that favours those who can pay to play, and which disfavours those who cannot afford to bring sufficient social or economic capital to the table.

The pressing need for greater access to justice is not controversial; it has been recognized by key actors and institutions within our legal system, including in statements made by Chief Justice Richard Wagner of the Supreme Court, the mission statement of the Department of Justice, and identified as a principal objective in the Federal Court’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. The fact that these central components of our legal system recognize the issue of access to justice is merely one indicator that this issue implicates the entire legal profession.

I too have witnessed the pressing need for greater access to justice from my perspective as a judge. During my years at the Federal Court, I have seen a growing number of self-represented litigants. For individuals who do not have counsel to advocate on their behalf, I make every reasonable effort to ensure that they are given an opportunity to present their case. Irrespective of the strength of an argument or the outcome of a decision, justice requires that parties to a legal proceeding be provided a fair hearing, which includes the right to be heard. Yet this right is often hindered in the absence of proper legal representation, as self-represented litigants are often unable to navigate the complexities of our legal system on their own accord, and they often lack the knowledge and expertise employed by opposing counsel. Self-represented litigants are thus at a disadvantage, and while I accommodate such individuals within reasonable limits to ensure a just outcome, decision-makers such as myself cannot replace the advocacy and advice provided by counsel.

Finally, I would be remiss not to address how the issue of access to justice disproportionately affects those who are racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, living with mental health or substance use issues, or who may otherwise be marginalized due to their identity. Access to justice entails not simply the provision of legal services, but the provision of services that are culturally sensitive and attuned to the needs and perspectives of equity-seeking groups. This need is particularly crucial in a Court such as mine, where numerous applicants are racialized individuals navigating Canada’s immigration system, or who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin due to their gender, religion, sexual orientation, or political opinion. When considering who is able to access justice and who is not, we must not focus solely on who is able to receive legal services writ large, but also who is able to receive legal services that are responsive and respectful to their personal circumstances.

Having discussed my thoughts on pro bonowork and access to justice in general, I shall now turn to why I believe these concepts are important to you, a new generation of lawyers.

Your legal education will equip you with tools to address barriers to justice that burden those who cannot afford legal services, or those who don’t see themselves reflected in our legal system. These tools are a privilege, and I hope that your time with Pro Bono Students Canada will instruct you on how to wield them effectively while inspiring you to infuse pro bonoworkinto your future careers.

Given the journey you are all about to embark on, I thought it would be helpful to share what I have learned from my own experiences undertaking pro bonoand legal aid work, which were large aspects of my career as a lawyer. I invite you to take from this advice what you please. Perhaps you will find a kernel of truth to what I say and apply it in the years to come; at the very least, I hope it is interesting enough to keep you engaged for the remainder of my speech.

My first piece of advice is that pro bonowork is a learning opportunity, and thus a means of self-improvement.

Most of you are currently preoccupied with worries about your future, and understandably so. You are worried about whether you will be able to find your dream job, or a job that will sufficiently compensate you, or any job at all. Nevertheless, it is not too early to start thinking about how you can work for the public good while still advancing your careers. These two pursuits are not mutually exclusive, but rather are complementary.

Your formal education is merely a starting point, a springboard for further opportunities to learn. It is akin to a learner’s licence – a ticket to beginning the learning process, but not the final product. Pro bonowork will teach you lessons that cannot be replicated in a classroom. You will learn about the law, how to engage with it hands on, and how individuals navigate the legal system. However, you will also learn about yourself and the issues facing the communities that you live in. Pro bonowork is a means by which to situate yourself within society; it illuminates where needs for access to justice exist, and how you as legal professionals can assist in addressing those needs.

Pro bonowork will also bring you into contact with individuals who you may otherwise not meet. You will soon be interacting with people who have a lot of knowledge to impart from their experiences. These individuals may be your clients or your co-workers, they may not speak your language or live in your neighbourhood, they may be less formally educated than you are, but it should go without saying that they have much to teach you. Be good listeners and learn from those near to you, regardless of where they stand in relation to yourself.

As the notable American historian Howard Zinn (not to be mistaken for my colleague, the Honourable Justice Zinn of the Federal Court) once aptly stated: “the cry of the poor is not always just, but if we don’t listen to it, we will never know what justice is.” As you begin working pro bono, you will find that not all of your clients are angels, but this does not mean they are unworthy of your services. The issue of access to justice recognizes that the efficacy of our legal system is undermined if a litigant’s personal circumstances determine whether they can come before the Courts with adequate resources, regardless of their moral character. Without access to justice for all, we will never know what justice is.

In summary, I urge you to use these volunteer experiences to deepen your understanding of the world around you, to locate needs that exist within your communities, and to discern if and how you can be of assistance. This knowledge is most readily attainable by lived experience. Better to begin the learning process now and expand your horizons for your future careers.

Pro bonowork is certainly not all about the personal advancement of those of us privileged enough to be legal professionals. My second piece of advice, which should come as no surprise, is that pro bonois an opportunity to do meaningful work for others.

Pro Bono Students Canada’s mission is to provide free legal services to people and communities facing barriers in accessing justice. As a new generation of legal professionals, I hope you are here today because you wish to engage in work of which you can be proud. Pro bono work is more than just volunteering to promote your self-image, to get ahead, or to add words to your resume in attempts to impress potential employers. This work should be important to you because it advances the interests of others, not just yourself. Engaging in this work involves thinking beyond our own needs, and recognizing our responsibilities as members of our communities.

In the year 2021, it remains debatable whether our circumstances are improving, or at least whether they will continue to improve. While we must undoubtedly provide for our loved ones and ourselves, we must not forget the needs of others. Our circumstances are shared and porous, not the sum of watertight individuals. By striving to work for the public good with the little that we have to offer -- to improve the lives of those around us, be they a stranger or family -- we seek to better our society during a time when such work is most needed.

To conclude, within my four years as a judge on the Federal Court, I have come to see that within the narrow parameters of our role there exists space for ingenuity and empathy, where we can interpret and apply the law in light of the lived experiences of those who appear before us. The same is generally true for legal practitioners – by engaging in pro bono work, you have the opportunity to use the skills you have learned meaningfully, while gleaning knowledge from those experiences. Through your time at Pro Bono Students Canada, you will support organizations that are veterans in providing meaningful services for their communities. Learn from their work, I hope you will carry on their traditions in your own careers once this placement is over.

As you enter this profession, I encourage you to become active contributors, to weave pro bono work throughout your career. Let these first years set the tone for what is to come: you are only dipping your toes in working for the public good, which is a crucial aspect of being a lawyer. I challenge you to see this experience as a starting point towards a career that incorporates community service work at every turn. In my view, such a career is the most lucrative of them all, as it imbues our work as lawyers with meaning, teaches us about those around us and about ourselves, while simultaneously contributing towards a more equitable, just and compassionate society.

Thank you. Enjoy your evening!

Date modified: 2022-02-02

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