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Improving Access to Family Justice by Promoting Alternatives to Full Representation

Lack of access to family justice and the increase in self-representation in family proceedings are growing concerns. According to the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Family Legal Services Review (the Bonkalo Report) in 2016, in over half of all family cases in Canadian courts, one or both parties are not represented by counsel. The report made several recommendations to the Ministry and the Law Society of Ontario, including the need to support the expanded use of legal coaching and other unbundled legal services, and the need to address liability concerns for counsel who are willing to act under limited scope retainers.

In 2017, The Law Foundation of Ontario agreed to fund a three-year project to improve access to family justice for middle and lower income Ontarians by increasing the use of limited scope retainers (such as court document drafting or in-court representation on a single appearance), legal coaching (lawyer assists client by offering advice, guidance and support in the background) and summary legal counsel (scheduled lawyers provide day-of-court assistance for a fee to unrepresented litigants not eligible for Legal Aid).

This project, the Family Law Limited Scope Services Project (“the FLLSS Project”), is an unprecedented, private-bar driven collaborative effort whose Advisory Committee is made up of members from the Ontario Bar Association Family Law Section; the Federation of Ontario Law Associations; the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts – Ontario Chapter; The Advocates’ Society; the Family Lawyers Association, the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice; experts in non-traditional legal services delivery and researchers. The Project team also works closely with Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Society of Ontario, LawPro, and Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO).

The keystone of the Project has been the creation of a website hosting a roster of trained lawyers who are willing and able to provide unbundled family law services and legal coaching to the people of Ontario. Prospective clients can search the online lawyer directory by location, type of service offered or service provider – even by the languages in which services can be offered. Although the website was soft-launched on January 1, 2019, recruitment and training of family lawyers to join the roster began in 2018, and the number of lawyers joining the roster has been proceeding apace. Requirements to join include historical and ongoing experience in family law practice and the completion of a mandatory training program provided by the FLLSS Project.

The website, FamilyLawLSS.ca, also provides easy-to-understand, step-by-step information on limited scope services and legal coaching in family law matters. The website is designed to:

  • Help people to decide if limited scope services may be an option for them
  • Provide practical tools such as checklists, flow charts, and a guide on how to hire a lawyer who will provide limited scope services
  • Provide resources and referral information for family legal services in Ontario
  • Provide lawyers with information and precedent materials, including retainer agreements, file opening check lists and other precedents
  • List upcoming training opportunities for lawyers.

Training sessions have already been held in Barrie and Toronto. Future “in-person” training events are being scheduled for 2019, and a free webinar version of the training is available via the OBA’s website.

A summary legal counsel pilot is also currently underway in Barrie, with the support of the Barrie family law bar. This project provides lawyers at court who are available to provide legal advice and/or in-court assistance on a private retainer to people who cannot afford full representation but are not eligible for duty counsel assistance through Legal Aid Ontario. Fees have been set for this pilot to maximize access and ensure consistency.

The Project’s research and evaluation component will study the perceptions of judges, lawyers and other justice system professionals and clients, the advantages and value of this type of service, as well as its limitations and how service delivery can be improved.

Would you like to learn more about this exciting initiative? Contact Helena Birt, the FLLSS Project Senior Program Director, at helenabirtlaw@gmail.com.

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