Blog June 27, 2024

Justice for All: Catherine McKinnon Speaks on Canada’s Data-Driven Pursuit of Equal Access to Justice

Front page of Justice for All: Catherine McKinnon Speaks on Canada’s Data-Driven Pursuit of Equal Access to Justice
  • Justice

Taking a Data-Driven Approach to Increase Access to Justice and Advance SDG16.3.3

The People Series is a set of interviews with a diverse set of leaders around the world committed to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16+, documenting their own justice journeys and priorities in the fight to make justice for all a reality.

These interviews took place between June and August of 2023 and have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What is your name and role?

A: My name is Catherine McKinnon. I am the head of the Access to Justice Secretariat at Justice Canada with the Government of Canada. 

Q: What does justice mean to you, and why is it important?

A: To me, justice is about fairness, equal opportunity, and equitable outcomes. At its core, I really think it’s about helping create a society where everyone has a chance to enjoy a good life. It’s as simple but as complex as that. And I would say it is not always obvious just how much our legal system affects people’s daily lives. We know that people experiencing a problem will not necessarily identify it as a legal problem. We have heard that in our research. To them, it’s a dispute, maybe with a landlord, a problem paying a credit card bill, or a disagreement with a neighbor. Of course, there’s often a legal framework that’s governing those situations. If people know more about their rights and responsibilities and have access to the information and services that can help them resolve them, then those problems may go away more quickly, or they may never arise in the first place. So I think it’s really important that we work on sharing with people how justice plays an important role in their lives.


Q: What can you share with us about your personal justice journey?

A: My personal justice journey was originally and continues to be, motivated by a desire to help people. As a younger person, the question for me was, how am I going to do this? How can I contribute? As it happens, one of my older brothers was in law school when I was studying in undergrad. He was very enthusiastic about law school and encouraged me to think about a career in law. He pointed out that it could open many doors, so I followed his advice. I was drawn to thinking about how I could potentially help people through legislative, policy, and program reform, so the government was a very natural fit for me. 

I’ve been with Justice Canada for over 25 years. During my time with the department, I’ve had the chance to work in a variety of areas, including social policy, diversity, and equality, and on files related to judges and courts, more specifically, and most recently, in the Access to Justice Secretariat. The Secretariat was established in 2019, so we’re still relatively young as a unit. Our mandate is to advance a people-centered approach to justice and realize Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16). We serve as a focal point and a champion for access to justice issues. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel working in this area. I have the privilege to work with colleagues across the Department of Justice and other federal departments and agencies, as well as with provincial and territorial governments, external stakeholders, and international partners. I’m inspired and motivated by them all the time as we’re working together to try to pursue this important goal of equal access to justice for all.

Q: How can we achieve SDG16.3.3 and ensure equal access to justice for all?

A: It’s undeniably a tall order to achieve 16.3.3 (“proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism”). We’ve seen challenges growing in recent years with the many crises the world has experienced. We know we need to take significant action immediately if we’re going to meet our goals by 2030. But I like to think it’s not all doom and gloom and that there is more than just a glimmer of hope for us. 

For one thing, there’s a growing body of people-centered quantitative and qualitative research, including disaggregated data, which is helping us to better understand the justice problems that diverse individuals and communities are experiencing. We are continually improving our research methodologies and exploring cost-effective ways to collect and share data more widely so that people are actually using it in their service-delivery, and decision-making. While we need to continue to expand these research efforts, I can see that we are already able to identify inspiring success stories, “game changers,” as some people call them, that make a real difference in advancing access to justice. These promising practices are being shared and can then be customized for local needs. 

For example, community justice services and problem-solving courts are being studied and implemented here in Canada. Our community-based community justice centers are being piloted by many provinces in Canada with financial support from the federal government. These centers bring together justice, health, education, and other social services to help support a range of complex problems people face. It is a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral approach, requiring us to be more integrated and holistic in our response to people who come into contact with the justice system. One of the great things about these centers is that they are uniquely designed and implemented to meet the needs of each community they serve, whether young people, Indigenous people, or other populations. It really holds a lot of promise in responding effectively and in a people-centered way to the problems people are experiencing. Right now, it’s being piloted in a few provinces, with the idea of studying it and exploring whether it is feasible to establish a national framework to support and guide other jurisdictions interested in the model.

Q: Why and how does data play a role in efforts to expand access to justice?

A: I think data is very important to our strategy because it is the foundation. That is where you start to understand the problem, and, as a result, what process do you follow to address it? What are the problems that people are experiencing? How are they experiencing those problems? What are the responses they are seeking to address them? We cannot just assume we know from where we sit—certainly, as government officials—we cannot do that. That’s why we have such a strong focus on different methodologies for data collection. 

Combining quantitative and qualitative approaches is important. In addition to the Canadian legal problems survey, we had a series of qualitative studies that looked at the experiences of various minority populations in different parts of Canada. Although it does not have the same numbers attached to it, that research is so rich in its narrative and helps provide greater context to what the numbers are saying. You need them both. We also do not just collect the data to have it on a shelf. We get that information out there and share it within the government. We also have it publicly available for researchers, organizations, and others who want access to the data. The data is made public, and we share information about this data and other research efforts so that people can take it and challenge it or augment it, which is really useful in informing our decision-makers.

Q:  Looking more broadly at other related issues, what role does justice play in helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

A: I see justice as very much integrated into the broader 2030 Agenda. We often speak about SDG16 as an enabler by advancing access to justice, peace, respect for human rights and human dignity and equality, and, of course, strong and accountable institutions—all those parts of SDG 16 are foundational to the other goals in the agenda. We can think about linkages between justice and efforts to reduce poverty, for example. 

For Canada, I could point to the work of the federal Social Security Tribunal, which hears appeals from individuals denied benefits such as pension, disability, or employment insurance. This is really getting at the heart of some basic income security for Canadians, and these individuals often face a range of challenges in the justice system, including those relating to disability, literacy, education, and language. To address this, the Social Security Tribunal in recent years has implemented several measures to facilitate access to its services, including things like training their adjudicators on plain language writing so that the decisions issued are meaningful to the people they govern. They have also implemented a navigator service that helps guide people through the tribunal process and are also using user feedback mechanisms to constantly monitor whether the changes they are making are helping or if other adjustments are needed. Such programs are getting positive feedback, but they are also learning about what is working, and also what more needs to be done. These are the types of efforts that will ensure that people are actually able to improve their well-being and quality of life. This is just one example of how access to justice and SDG 16 contribute to the broader 2030 Agenda and the vision to leave no one behind.

Q: How do you want justice prioritized in global leadership conversations?

A: I would very much like to see justice included and prioritized in global discussions around the SDGs because of these interlinkages and the pivotal role that peace and justice play in realizing all our goals. Among other things, equal access to justice for all will play an important role in building and maintaining trust in public institutions. That issue is uppermost in many leaders’ minds in our current context. I would say that achieving the SDG16 targets is not only relevant to ministers of justice, judges, or other justice sector stakeholders. Leaders and decision-makers in other policy areas should also be taking a close look at how promoting access to justice can advance their own objectives. More cross-sectoral collaboration and pooling of resources, financial and otherwise, will support accelerated progress on multiple fronts. 

I would like to see these opportunities explored at the Summit for the Future and other multilateral events. One of the things I really hope to see in these conversations is the focus remaining on understanding and responding to the diverse needs of individuals and communities. If we keep taking a people-centered approach to justice and tackling global challenges more generally, we can help deliver fair outcomes for people and support those broader social and economic benefits for society as a whole.

Q: Canada has been a leader in advancing people-centered justice through its collaborations abroad but has also made this a priority domestically. What steps is Canada taking to expand access to meaningful justice within its borders, and why is people-centered justice a priority for Canada?

A: Advancing people-centered justice is a priority for Canada, partly because recent research demonstrates quite clearly how important it is for us to take action on this front. In 2021, our national statistical agency, Statistics Canada, conducted a legal problem survey. It gathered information on the types of problems that people in Canada experience, whether and how they try to resolve them, and what impacts those experiences have on their daily lives. So this is one of the latest in a series of legal needs surveys that Canada has conducted, and I know many other countries have also conducted. The survey found that millions of Canadians experienced at least one serious problem in the three years preceding the survey. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these people indicated that it was important to them to resolve their problems. But many of them, interestingly, looked for help from family, friends, and the internet, and less so in terms of accessing help through the formal justice system. That was an interesting finding. For those who did not take any action to resolve their problem, the reasons they gave included things like not thinking anything could be done, or they thought it might actually make the problem worse, or they did not know where to go for help. These are all signals and clear indicators that we need to do more to make justice accessible. 

Furthermore, as did a series of complementary qualitative studies that we conducted, the survey showed how much these experiences can lead to negative financial and health impacts on people, including extreme stress (very broadly reported). We know that some individuals and communities are disproportionately affected by justice problems. Discrimination-related problems were among the top four most commonly reported in our survey. Disaggregated data was useful in showing that Indigenous people and Black people were both among the groups who experienced high levels of discrimination. We recognize that there are deep-seated issues of systemic racism and discrimination in Canada and our justice system, and that has contributed to an over-representation of Indigenous people and Black people in our criminal justice system. However, this is not limited to the criminal justice system. It is broader than that. As part of a response to this, we are collaborating with partners and communities on Indigenous and Black justice strategies. Efforts are underway to try to make headway in these very serious issues. But that is going to be a work in progress, obviously, over the next number of years, and we will continue to try to deepen our understanding of what people are experiencing and what types of responses we can take that will most effectively address these issues.

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