Update on the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project

The Alberta Limited Legal Services Project, a research effort looking at the effects of unbundling on access to justice, was formally launched on 18 April 2017. As described in my earlier post on this subject, the project offers Albertans a roster of lawyers prepared to provide work on a limited scope retainer and aims to gauge lawyers’ and clients’ satisfaction with limited scope work and ultimately determine whether some legal help is better than no legal help at all.

At present, the project boasts a roster of 49 lawyers with offices throughout Alberta, from Peace River to Medicine Hat, practicing in almost every area of civil law, including 39 whose services include family law matters. The project’s website is intended to link potential clients with participating lawyers. It promotes participating lawyers and their firms, and lists their contact information, the areas of law in which they offer limited scope services and the locations of their practices. Roster lawyers are also be promoted through the National Self-Represented Litigants Project.

With the help of the Law Society of Alberta, Rob Harvie QC and I broadcast a webinar introducing the project to roster lawyers in March. A link to a recording of the webinar, which covers the basics of unbundling, the associated practice and ethical issues and project processes, is available through the project website and is now supplemented by a variety of other resources, including FAQs, a client intake guide, best practices for unbundling and a model retainer agreement.

We have begun to spread word about the project to various justice system stakeholders and potential client referral sources, including legal clinics, court workers and Legal Aid Alberta. Rob has prepared a guide for clients; a client brochure and electronic project poster have also been produced.

The expectations of volunteer lawyers are slight. We ask that participating lawyers:

  1. recommend to clients that a problem be handled on a limited scope basis, but only when such an approach is appropriate to the client, the problem and the client’s circumstances;
  2. complete a short, five-minute survey at the conclusion of each limited scope file, and ask their clients to complete a separate survey at the same time; and,
  3. complete a longer, ten-minute survey, intended to obtain their retrospective impression of limited scope work, once every four to six months

(The surveys are both confidential and voluntary, of course, and will be used to identify neither lawyer nor client, nor link one to the other.) The data-collection phase will end in September 2018, following which the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family will analyze the results of the client and lawyer surveys and produce a report evaluating the project and its implications for access to justice in Alberta.

Some interesting observations may already be made.

  • The concept of coaching as a legal service provided to litigants without counsel, which I had thought was relatively new, is surprisingly popular among roster lawyers, 24 of whom will provide coaching for court appearances and other aspects of the ligation process, including disclosure and examinations for discovery.
  • More than a fifth of roster lawyers will provide their services by telephone or online, disposing of the need for a physical office.
  • Three-fifths of roster lawyers will provide help drafting pleadings and other court documents. Two-fifths will appear in court on behalf of a client, and half will provide advice on commencing or continuing court proceedings.

Lawyers may join, or leave, the project at any point during the data-collection phase of the project. It goes without saying that the more information we gather, the more reliable the results will be.

Sincere thanks are due to the Ontario Law Foundation, for generously funding the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project, to the Alberta Law Foundation and to Rob Harvie, who developed the original concept of the study and continues to lead our steering committee. Thanks are also owing to the other members of that committee: Sharon Crooks of Rowanoak Law Office in Sylvan Lake; Megan Dawson of McCuaig Desrochers in Edmonton; Andrea Doyle of Legal Aid Alberta in Edmonton; Kim Feodoroff of Calgary Legal Guidance; Cecelia Frohlick, Kendall Moholitny, Nonye Opara and Myra Skerrett of Pro Bono Law Alberta in Calgary; Ed Gallagher of Patriot Law in Onoway; Jack Hauptman of Shourie Bhatia in Fort McMurray; Brad Kring of Alberta Justice and Solicitor General in Edmonton; Kathy Parsons of the Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic in Red Deer; and, Richard Rand QC, of Rand Kiss Turner in Edmonton. Thanks are lastly due to our roster lawyers, without whose participation the project could never have left the drafting table.

My hope for the project is that the results will not only support the idea that limited scope work improves the capacity of low- and middle-income individuals to access justice but also dispel some of the apprehensions that discourage lawyers from providing this sort of service to their clients. I expect that this research, whatever the results may be, will be relevant to and can be applied throughout all of Canada. To that end, anyone interested in replicating or repurposing the project may contact me for further details about how the project was developed and to obtain editable copies of the surveys, practices resources and other material we have prepared for the project.

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary

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