It is a fact that today thousands of people in our country cannot afford a lawyer and must rely on their own skills and resources to access the justice system, be it through the courts or one of the many administrative tribunals. Those who represent themselves often do not understand the legal system, the role of courts and tribunals, or the law. When these self-represented litigants also suffer from low literacy skills, the challenges for them and the justice system are compounded.
Those of us who have no problem reading, and for whom the written word is as understandable as the spoken word, may not fully comprehend the frustration experienced by those who have difficulty reading when faced with the document-laden justice system. How can they understand tribunal procedures and rules? How can they understand the documents put forward by the opposing party? How can they understand the tribunal’s decision itself? This is a problem that requires a multi-faceted solution.
Key participants have been working to develop new strategies to help meet these challenges. For example, the National Judicial Institute has published a report on the effects of low literacy on individuals who come before the courts. The Canadian Judicial Council has completed a set of Model Jury Instructions in plain language and is working on tools for judges and lawyers to help them better communicate with self-represented litigants. Recently, a collaboration among a number of interested parties in British Columbia has resulted in a pilot project Self-help Information Centre for self-represented litigants in Vancouver.
This publication is another valuable piece in the solution matrix. It provides helpful observations, commentary and suggestions on how administrative tribunals can more effectively deal with the challenges presented by self-represented persons who have difficulty understanding written documents. I hope this booklet will help those involved with the management of administrative tribunals relate to the problems faced by persons who have low literacy skills, and that it will result in making this aspect of the justice system more understandable and accessible for all.
The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada