By Pamela R. Kovacs

 Access to justice is a trending topic in Canada and in many parts of the world. In the mix of current discussions, it is important to recall that access to justice is a right entrenched in international human rights law. It is also fundamental for the realization of other human rights.

Access to justice (AtoJ) is not simplistically defined, and it is “much more than improving an individual’s access to courts, or guaranteeing legal representation. It must be defined in terms of ensuring that legal and judicial outcomes are just and equitable.”[1]

Justice and equity are intrinsically linked and shaped by human rights. The Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has stated that a “complex fabric of rights related to access to justice” are contained in the major international human rights instruments:

The legal complexity and richness of the concept of access to justice lies in the fact that it is both a right in itself and the means of restoring the exercise of rights that have been disregarded or violated. As an indispensable component of specific rights such as the right to liberty and to personal safety, it is closely linked to the right to effective judicial protection (fair trial or due process), the right to an effective remedy and the right to equality.[2]

The triad of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights form the core of international human rights law. States ratifying the Covenants agree that they will abide by the rights enshrined in these treaties and work toward respecting, protecting, and fulfilling these obligations domestically through institutional mechanisms. Pursuant to the principle expressed in Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, State parties are required to give effect to their obligations in good faith.[3] Canada acceded to both Covenants in May 1976.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the cornerstone of international human rights law. The UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as General Assembly Resolution 217A. Articles 7 and 8 provide for the right to equality before the law without discrimination, equal protection of the law, and the right to an effective remedy by competent national tribunals.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCRP) builds on the UDHR. Similar to Article 7 of the UDHR, Article 2(1) of the ICCPR provides for non-discrimination, notably on the basis of social origin or status, meaning that ability to pay should not be a barrier to claiming rights. This is also reinforced in Article 26 which provides that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law, without discrimination.

The Human Rights Committee (HRC) monitors the implementation of the ICCPR by State parties and provides guidance to States to help clarify and realize their commitments. In commentary for Article 2, the HRC has noted the positive obligations on States to ensure ICCPR rights and protect against violations.[4]

Similar to Article 8 of the UDHR, Article 2(3) of the ICCPR requires an effective remedy by competent authority. The HRC has commented that Article 2 requires that States “adopt legislative, judicial, administrative, educative and other appropriate measures in order to fulfil their legal obligations.”[5] States are required to take steps across the spectrum of government control to ensure that rights are realized. The HRC has also stated that Article 2(3) “requires that in addition to effective protection of Covenant rights States Parties must ensure that individuals also have accessible and effective remedies to vindicate those rights.”[6] The addition of the term accessible complements the framework of equal and effective protection and remedy that the UDHR provides and is reinforced in the ICCPR.

The ICCPR also contains Article 14 which specifically addresses the administration of justice. The HRC has recognized Article 14 as the right to equality before the courts and tribunals and to a fair trial. The HRC has been clear that aspects of Article 14 relate to civil law matters[7] and the State is under an obligation to give effect to these rights: “A situation in which an individual’s attempts to access the competent courts or tribunals are systematically frustrated de jure or de facto runs counter to the guarantee of article 14…”[8]

From an AtoJ perspective, the recognition of de facto barriers is important. This requires the elimination of obstacles (e.g. financial, social, or cultural) that, in practice, erode the ability to claim justice. The removal of these barriers is the obligation of the State and requires, for instance, information about rights and laws, assistance in pursuing a legal matter, and an overarching affordable legal system. The HRC has stated:

The availability or absence of legal assistance often determines whether or not a person can access the relevant proceedings or participate in them in a meaningful way. While Article 14 explicitly addresses the guarantee of legal assistance in criminal proceedings, in paragraph 3(d), States are encouraged to provide free legal aid in other cases, for individuals who do not have sufficient means to pay for it. In some cases, they may even be obliged to do so.[9]

In essence, the effective application of Article 14 is that representation and access to legal services is necessary for equal AtoJ in both civil and criminal matters. The ICCPR in Articles 26 and 14 provides for: equality before the law; equality under the law; equal protection of the law; and equal benefit of the law. This signifies “both formal equality, meaning the application of the law, and substantive equality, meaning the result and benefits of applying the law. For these equality rights to be effective, individuals must be given the ability to obtain legal assistance when required and thus effective access to the courts and the legal process.”[10]

The ICCPR adds much to a rights-based AtoJ framework. It reinforces the principles of equal (non-discriminatory) access, which entails equality of arms between parties and an effective system of competent authorities for hearing disputes, including in civil matters. De facto barriers must be removed and steps must be taken to give effect to the system from a “legislative, judicial, administrative, and educative perspective”.[11]

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) contains no direct counterpart to Article 2 of the ICCPR, which obligates State parties to provide judicial remedy. However, the ICESCR notes in its preamble that “in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights” which includes “appropriate means of redress, or remedies … and appropriate means of ensuring governmental accountability.”[12]

Similar to the HRC, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) provides guidance on interpretation of the ICESCR and its domestic application, noting that remedies may be judicial or administrative, but in the case of the latter, must be “accessible, affordable, timely and effective.”[13] With this description, the CESCR has added to a framework of AtoJ. Combining all of these elements creates a robust rights-based approach in which to view AtoJ constructed on the standards set forth in the major international human rights instruments: equal, accessible, affordable, timely, and effective.[14] State parties are under obligations to take steps to progressively realize this framework.


It is well established that the realization of some human rights is a process, while some rights, for instance, the right to be free from torture, must be realized immediately. Article 2(2) of the ICCPR, requires that State parties take the necessary steps to give effect to rights by legislating and building a system of laws and remedies that develops all human rights. This requirement is unqualified and of immediate effect: “A failure to comply with this obligation cannot be justified by reference to political, social, cultural or economic considerations within the State.”[15]

Article 2(1) of the ICESCR outlines that States have the obligation to progressively realize rights, but “what is required from Canada is more than what is required from Chad.”[16] For many nations, rationing of justice systems and legal services has become the norm due to budgetary considerations, which, is an “overt challenge to universal equality before the law.”[17]

The CESCR indicates that States must take steps to realize their obligations and that these steps must be deliberate, concrete, targeted and appropriate.[18] Further, as reflected in Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, State parties “may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”

It is clear that there is “cost and complexity in giving effect to human rights”[19] but caution must be taken not to distract from the idea of the right itself, the aim sought, and a principled manner of realizing the right. In recent years, due to necessity, Canada has seen a surge of interest in AtoJ, particularly in civil matters. From the recent Canadian Bar Association Report on equal AtoJ to the Report of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters to the expansion of the research agenda of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice and burgeoning pro bono efforts. Further, there is a growing understanding that there are considerable costs to health and well-being when legal needs are not addressed and small problems morph into much larger ones.[20] In addition to a legal obligation, there is an economic argument in favour of AtoJ.

As the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has stated, “Access to Justice requires the establishment of a judicial system that guarantees rights, and of parallel measures such as mechanisms and programmes to facilitate free legal assistance.”[21] With the grounding that AtoJ is a human right, with a coherent framework for implementation, the importance of realization matters not only for Canadians and a system of justice, but for the larger multi-lateral environment related to human rights and accountability of the State towards its citizens as rights bearers. Canada has a legal obligation to realize these rights – they are not simply aspirational but must become concrete in practice.


Pamela R. Kovacs is currently a Research and Learning Officer with the International Development Law Organization. She formerly practiced law with McKercher LLP, was the founding Executive Director of Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan, and a member of a number of task forces and committees focused on access to justice. This post is based on her thesis: “Developed and Developing Views on Access to Justice”.


[1] United Nations Development Programme. ‘Access to Justice Practice Note’, 2004.

[2] Despouy, Leandro. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers’, A/HRC/8/4, United Nations General Assembly, 13 May 2008.

[3] Canada acceded to this treaty on 14 Oct 1970.

[4] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 31’, Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add. 13 (2004) para. 8.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 32’, Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/GC/32 (2007) section III.

[8] Ibid., II.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See: Skinnider, Eileen. ‘The Responsibility of States to Provide Legal Aid’, Vancouver: The International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Law Policy, Prepared for the Legal Aid Conference, Beijing, March, 1999 at 14-15.

[11] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 31’, Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add. 13 (2004) para. 7.

[12] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 9’, Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/1998/24 (1998) para. 2.

[13] Ibid., para. 9.

[14] See: Curran, Liz and Mary Anne Noone. ‘Access to Justice: A New Approach Using Human Rights Standards.’ International Journal of the Legal Profession, 15.3 (2008): 195-229 at 203.

[15] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 31’, Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add. 13 (2004) para 14.

[16] See: Hunt, Paul. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health’, A/HRC/4/28, 17 January 2007.

[17] Moorhead, Richard and Pascoe Pleasence. ‘Access to Justice after Universalism: Introduction’, Journal of Law and Society 30.1 (2003): 1-10.

[18] United Nations. ‘General Comment No. 3’, Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights., contained in document E/1991/23 (1990), para. 2.

[19] Rice, Simon. ‘A Human Right to Legal Aid.” Conference on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Provision of Legal Services: Best Practices from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, March 27-30, 2007 at 8.

[20] See: Pleasence, Pascoe. ‘Causes of Action: Civil Law and Social Justice’, 2nd ed. London: The Stationery Office, 2006. At 2.

[21] Despouy, Leandro. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers’, A/HRC/8/4, 13 May 2008 at para. 23.