By Sara Gold
“There is no justice for the poor”.
All throughout my legal education, I have encountered this statement. In my Law & Poverty class, we examined the many ways laws have contributed to poverty. We discussed how often those in the most precarious of situations find themselves without legal representation due to the expensive fees of lawyers and the various limitations on legal aid in Quebec. When volunteering at McGill’s Legal Information Clinic, I spoke to clients facing hardship who were limited by a confusing and inaccessible justice system. And – at a public hearing during my internship this summer at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights , I encountered this statement again – this time directly expressed by a grieving mother who had lost her son.
On March 20, 1999, Walter Munárriz Escobar disappeared after being supposedly detained by police in Lircay, Peru. Although Peru posited that he was released, the Inter-American Commission argued that there was no documentary evidence of that release, that the testimonies brought forward by the State alleging to the release of Munárriz Escobar did not meet the Court’s minimum standards of credibility, and that there was evidence that Munárriz Escobar was subject to physical and verbal abuse while in the custody of the State. Almost twenty years had passed since he disappeared, with the inadequate investigations of the State yielding few results.
During the hearing, I observed the many ways justice is limited for the poor.
First, I watched Munárriz Escobar´s mother, Gladys Justina Escobar Candiotti, testify to how the disappearance of her son changed her and her family´s lives. She declared the above statement in response to an interrogation by one of the judges – this was her first time speaking in a Court – she was never given the opportunity to testify to her son´s disappearance in Peru. She claimed that her family was economically worse-off since he had helped provide for them since her husband had passed. She described her limited access to justice given the many institutional, procedural and legal barriers she encountered throughout the entire process.
Second, as the hearing progressed, I watched the representatives of Peru question Escobar Candiotti. They spoke quickly, in legalese, and showed little empathy. They formulated their questions using complicated words and by making reference to procedural irregularities she knew nothing about. It was clear that Escobar Candiotti did not understand all of their questions. Their inaccessible use of language is another way justice limits the poor – this mirrored the incomprehension I often witnessed parties experience during court visits in Montreal. I thought about whether any guidance was provided to the State representatives on the manner of questioning victims in the courtroom. I wondered if the Court could intervene. Article 52(4) of The Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights indicates than they can. However, it still remains unclear as to whether this can apply to the victim´s comprehension of a question and to what extent the Court can intervene. Witnessing this part of the hearing reaffirmed my belief that justice is limited for the poor if legal proceedings are tainted with jargon and if legal actors fail to ensure that non-legal actors are fully aware of the nature of proceedings directly affecting them.
Third, I listened to Escobar Candiotti make her closing statements, and emotionally appeal for her son´s remains, declaring that all she wanted was “justice”, “justice to feel closure, justice so that her other children could also feel closure”. The President of the Court directly responded to her plea in pronouncing that “this court administers justice, Inter-American justice”. Witnessing this made me think about how the Court has successfully helped provide a space for so many to achieve justice. The point of public hearings is to allow victims to speak out publicly and to allow for the acts of States and their agents to no longer be shrouded in secrecy. Yet, so many individuals remain left behind. This is exemplified in the statistical data on the activities of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2017, the IACHR received 2494 petitions. 473 were opened for processing and out of those, 17 were submitted to the Court for adjudication. While cases must first be processed by the Commission, and while they may be resolved before making it to the Court, and while the Court definitely does not have enough resources to hear every case, these circumstances do not preclude the reality that many victims of human rights violations in the Americas are left without the opportunity to even make it to the preliminary stages of the Inter-American system. Only State parties and the Commission can refer contentious cases to the Court. Many are left without the opportunity to seek justice.
My experience so far in Costa Rica has been wonderful. I have been privileged to meet extremely kind, intelligent and inspiring individuals. I feel extremely lucky to be here. However, I won´t forget that day. I keep thinking back to Gladys Justina Escobar Candiotti, and to the Court´s role, and my role within and beyond this internship, in working towards a world where justice is an opportunity for all.
See 49:48 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html
 The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is the judicial organ of the Inter-American human rights system. With the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and under the umbrella of the Organization of American States (OAS), it contributes to the protection of human rights in the Americas. It is located in San José, Costa Rica. It holds hearings on a part-time basis. For a quick explanation of the Court, please see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/abccorte/abc/6/index.html
 Public hearing of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018), held at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on May 25, 2018.
 See 36:50 and 38:14 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html
 Article 52(4): “The Presidency shall have the faculty of deciding the pertinence of questions posed and of excusing the party being questioned from answering, unless the Court deems otherwise. Leading questions shall not be admitted”. Please see:http://www.corteidh.or.cr/sitios/reglamento/nov_2009_ing.pdf
 See 57:46 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html
 See 58:20 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html
 Under the American Convention on Human Rights, cases can be referred to the Court by the IACHR or a Member State. The Court is a measure of last resort; cases can only referred to the Court by the Commission once the State has failed to comply with the recommendations made by the Commission in their process.
 For 2017 statistics, see: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/multimedia/statistics/statistics.html