All of us are accustomed to reading media reports on the results of the latest medical research and the forecast of anticipated improvements to health care that will follow. We assume that decisions made in the health care profession are based on sound data from defensible research. For without data, how would the medical profession develop the programs to improve the delivery of health care?
Access to data is central to the development of effective policy and programs in all social services and, in this regard, the justice system is no exception. Yet, one of the difficulties facing all of us working in the field of access to justice is finding the data that helps us to understand a problem and gives us the material to develop real solutions.
This problem is neither unique to Canada nor new. Hazel Genn, in her UK study Paths to Justice, stated the problem as follows:
Discussion about access to justice and lack of access to justice proceeds largely in the absence of reliable quantitative data about the needs, interests and experiences of the community that the system is there to serve.
Closer to home and more recently, Julie MacFarlane noted the lack of data in relation to self-represented litigants:
…policy is being made on the basis of very little empirical information from [self-represented litigants] about their needs and challenges in navigating court processes.
In the CBA Equal Access to Justice Report, it was noted that:
Over the past two decades the justice system has become more adept at collecting baseline data, but the empirical basis for decision-making is still extremely limited compared to what is known about health and education. The justice system has a long way to go in terms of what information is collected, how it is collected and how available it is. Overall we have become better at counting inputs and outputs, although not all of this data is open or transparent and there is no coordination across agencies to collect information in a manner that permits comparison. (p. 11)
While there is no doubt that more research with consistent metrics is needed, there is A2J research underway in academic institutions and justice-related agencies across the country. The problem is that the information on who is working on what issue is hard to find. In the absence of information on what has been accomplished and what currently is being researched, we risk re-inventing the wheel or missing obvious research that needs to be tackled.
The Access to Justice Centre for Excellence (ACE) is planning a National Research Colloquium in September to further the laying of a foundation for a national research strategy. To prepare for this discussion, one of the first projects of ACE is the Canadian Access Research Data Map.
The Data Map will provide a means for researchers, institutions, agencies and others to learn about the research activities and projects underway in Canada. Our hope is that the Data Map project will facilitate coordination of research across institutions and jurisdictions. Better communication on current research projects will assist in the development of a Canada-wide research agenda, the identification of potential data sources, the articulation of metrics, the sharing of issues and information, and the comparison of future results.
The Data Map will develop in three stages.
- Current research: The first phase of the Canadian Access Research Data Map Project will bring together, in one accessible location, information on who is currently doing access to justice research in Canada (and planned research). This information will be collected under two headings:
- Academic research: identifying individual researchers, their research institution, and a brief summary of their research plan. The Data Map will describe briefly the nature, objective, scope and timeframe of current access research projects, together with contact information.
- Non-academic research: the Data Map will serve as a location to identify and collate access research currently being undertaken in Canada by governments (e.g. Ministries of Justice) and professional bodies (e.g. Canadian Bar Association).
The research categories will be broadly defined to include empirical and applied research, traditional theoretical or scholarly research, as well as policy and program research. All information, with necessary links, will ultimately be published on the ACE website.
2. Historical research: The second phase of the Data Map Project will involve collecting and collating historical access research. The depth and scale of this phase is still under consideration. We are currently exploring questions such as how much material this would involve and whether collecting it duplicates work already done elsewhere.
3. National research agenda: The third phase involves facilitating a conversation between Canadian access researchers in an effort to create a national research agenda.
If you are involved in a research project, please contact me, Kathryn Thomson, at email@example.com. I would be pleased to provide you with further information on our project and to include your work on the Data Map.
 Hazel Genn, Paths to Justice: What People Do and Think About Going to Law (Portland, Ore: Hart Publishing, 1999) at 1.
 Julie Macfarlane, “The National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants” (Kingsville, Ontario: Self-Published Report, April 2013) at 15.