Story by: Kurt Sandstrom
In 2013, British Columbia enacted the Justice Reform and Transparency Act, consistent with commitments made in its White Paper on Justice Reform, which was issued in response to Geoffrey Cowper’s report, A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century. The Act includes a stipulation for the attorney general to convene justice summits annually, as a vehicle for facilitating collaboration among all justice participants; considering promising practices or initiatives in other jurisdictions; providing input on the sector’s strategic vision; making recommendations and assessing British Columbia’s progress regarding justice transformation efforts.
Since the inaugural summit in 2013, there have been 12 summits, usually occurring twice a year, and covering a comprehensive range of topics including criminal justice reform; family justice reform; violence against women; trauma informed responses to victims of violent crime; linkages among mental health, substance misuse and justice; technology; and Indigenous justice.
To encourage opportunities for dialogue and active participation in the plenary, summit invitees typically number under 100. Over the years, more than 300 individuals in total have participated in British Columbia’s justice summits, representing various entities including lawyers in private practice, mediators, police and RCMP, mental health organizations, victims advocates, women’s services agencies, local governments, the federal government, academic institutions, the judiciary, legal NGOs, Indigenous organizations, self-represented litigants, elected representatives from the provincial government and opposition and government staff in the justice and public safety sector and other Ministries.
There is a firm commitment to maintaining the independence of the summit process, which is reinforced by having each summit organized by a steering committee comprising subject matter experts and others from within and outside government. The steering committee for each summit is also responsible for drafting the proceedings in consultation with event participants, but independent from the attorney general and political staff. The steering committee provides the attorney general and judiciary with the report of proceedings, which summarizes the nature of the discussions and articulates any recommendations made by summit participants. These proceedings are then made public in an electronic format.
The summits tend to be media-free events, which helps sustain their independence. Likewise, participants adhere to Chatham House principles to encourage an environment of candid and open discussion, with confidentiality expected and assured. Participants’ views may be captured in the summit’s report of proceedings but without specific attribution unless that individual gives consent for disclosure.
During the initial justice summits, the focus was on establishing the model and the rules of engagement. Key to these early summits was enhancing communication and building trust among participants. Over time, however, summit discussions became more substantive, with frank considerations of both the challenges to, and opportunities for, justice transformation. And while comments and observations were recorded in the early proceedings (without attribution), they were not framed as formal recommendations.
By 2015, summit participants were keen to see recommendations and action items defined for each summit, including proposals for collaboration or innovation. Recommendations are periodically documented and tracked in a Status of Prior Summit Recommendations report, including efforts undertaken by the sector’s leadership to implement recommendations that are deemed actionable and fall within government purview.
The justice and public safety sector’s ongoing commitment to justice summits — beyond and despite the statutory imperative — is recognition of the enormous value realized by bringing together justice participants in a forum that allows and encourages dialogue. The advantages for our sector are numerous:
- Because of the broad range of attendees, we are able to explore complex issues more holistically, through disparate perspectives that consider the linkages and impacts among related aspects of a summit topic.
- We have exposure to best and promising practices and evidence-based research that may guide or inform future direction.
- We learn from and about users and people with lived experience in the system so that our policies and approaches are meaningful and responsive to their needs.
- Opportunities for collaboration materialize and we are able to involve or connect key partners to pursue action on shared interests. In addition, summit participants gain fresh insights into systemic challenges and often create new partnerships or access to tools and resources that may help them advance their work. Fostering stronger relationships can lead to joint action on long-term sustainable transformation.
Our most recent justice summit, held on April 26, offered us the opportunity to reflect on our summit process to date and to engage senior justice sector participants in an open discussion on what works, what could be improved and what we want to achieve going forward.
Overall, the justice summits have created a solid foundation for conversation, collaboration and co-ordination and have promoted greater cohesion within the sector. As with all past justice summits, a summary report will be prepared and publicly available at www.justicebc.ca.
Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches law, public policy and dispute resolution at the University of Victoria. He lives and works on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.
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