Legal aid lacking: top judge

The old adage goes something like this: a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

But Canada's top judge blames a lack of legal aid funding for what she says is the major challenge facing the criminal system — access to justice, especially for the poor and marginalized.

"We have a justice system to be proud of but it does not always do the job it was created for," Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, told a public lecture Thursday at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's.

She especially emphasized the number of people who struggle to represent themselves after being denied legal aid.

"The cut-off can be quite low," she said of funding restrictions.

"Lost in a system they don't understand, and that seems incompatible with their reality, the accused lose faith in the system and in justice itself, and they give up. Is that access to justice? I don't think so," she told the audience.

"We all have heard criticisms of the justice system for occasionally producing a wrongful conviction."

Self-represented defendants are more likely to plead guilty, to be denied bail and to be convicted, McLachlin said.

"If I had a wish that some genie would fulfil, I'd say it would be to somehow impress attorney generals — people involved in the justice system and governance — with the vital importance of spending a little more on justice and making sure people are represented."

It was one of her last public lectures as chief justice before she gets set to retire in mid-December after 28 years on the country's highest court. She has been in the top job for almost 18 years.

McLachlin said while health and education spending have increased, spending on the justice system has been stagnant or declined across Canada in recent decades.

Yet she says various studies show that rehabilitating offenders pays off economically.

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