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Final Report of Mediate BC’s BC Family Justice Unbundled Legal Services Project Now Available

As many of you know, unbundled legal services help to fill the gap for people who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford full representation. Law Societies in many jurisdictions have formally approved unbundling (also called limited scope legal services) but few lawyers were offering these services to the public. The purpose of the BC Family Justice Unbundled Legal Services Project (the “Project”) was to find ways to encourage more lawyers to offer these services.

After an 18 month process, I’m pleased to advise that the Project’s final report and the report of the independent evaluation of the Project are now available.

The Project has been highlighted in various Slaw posts during that period including here and Nate Russell’s excellent post here. While the final report details the Project’s activities, observations and deliverables during its 18 month life, the unbundling movement is far from over. In fact, the report acknowledges that, at most, it attempted to nudge an existing movement and that much more still needs to be done.

Unbundling is not the silver bullet for access to justice. However, it is an important piece of the access to justice puzzle. The Project used the term “unbundling” to include “legal coaching” and has collaborated the National Self-represented Litigants Project and Nikki Gershbain who are working to promote that important approach. We also shared information with JP Boyd’s Alberta Limited Legal Services Project.

The Project’s research and engagement phase identified both concerns/barriers and successful practices which led to the creation, in collaboration with others, of four major deliverables:

The Toolkit is open and available to anyone. While it focuses on family matters, the contents were designed to be adaptable to other practice areas. Tools address the major concerns expressed by lawyers: claims and complaints to the Law Society and reputational concerns.

Many lawyers are already providing unbundled legal services, although they may call them something different and, due to their concerns, may refrain from promoting or advertising those services. Unbundled legal services can come in many different forms and in a variety of practice areas. When he first learned about unbundling, one lawyer from the Okanagan was excited to announce that he was providing unbundled services to small claims litigants using a flat fee. We also encountered a number of BC lawyers who are focusing their practices on unbundling in creative and satisfying ways. We hope that the Project results will provide more lawyers with the incentive and reassurance to examine their own practices and consider how they could offer unbundled services to existing or new clients.

The report was also drafted with other change-makers in mind. It includes observations, principles and learnings that were designed to assist those who are supporting unbundling and related initiatives in other jurisdictions.

The Project evolved over time (as is expected when dealing in a complex environment) and focused on some key principles including:

  • Acknowledging that the Project attempted to intervene in a complex (justice) system and that change-making in that environment requires a different approach;
  • Embracing a “learn as you go” approach;
  • Gaining inspiration from other jurisdictions (which were also encouraging unbundling);
  • Collaborating with a wide variety of stakeholders including the public;

The report concludes with observations about unbundling and the change process, a vision for the future and some critical next steps. It urges stakeholders (in particular, the Law Society of BC, CBA BC Branch, Courthouse Libraries of BC and Access to Justice BC) to assume a joint stewardship role to continue to nurture the unbundling movement. The CBABC has already confirmed creation of a new province-wide Unbundled Legal Services section and A2JBC is in the process of forming an Unbundling Working Group. We are optimistic that the momentum created for unbundling will continue.

The Project evaluation report confirms the growing interest of lawyers in unbundled services and tangible support from the BC judiciary (which is encouraging). It also confirms perceived barriers to lawyer involvement plus strategies to address them, all of which were taken into account in designing both the Toolkits and Roster. The evaluation report also points out areas needing further research (including more robust input from clients who have used unbundled legal services). The report concludes with:

Across the board, there was concurrence that there is a crisis of legal affordability and that unbundled legal services are needed as one way to address a lack of access to justice and lack of access to legal services.

It is still early days in this journey and we hope that evaluation activities will continue as unbundling expands.

A key point emerging from both reports is the urgent need for a focused effort to raise public awareness of unbundling. Now that the profession is stepping forward to offer these services we need to let the public know they are available and how to find those who offer them.

We are extremely grateful to the Law Society of BC, the Law Foundation of BC, Courthouse Libraries of BC, CBABC and Mediate BC for their ongoing support (financial and otherwise) of this initiative and to the many other stakeholders who have stepped up to champion unbundling.

Please take a few moments to review the final report and evaluation report and consider how unbundling is or could be a more prominent part of your practice. While my official role in the Project has concluded, I would be happy to receive your thoughts and ideas and to support this important initiative as it moves forward.

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