Family courts filled with litigants and no one to guide them
TheStar.com – Opinion/EditorialOpinion
Published On Wed Nov 10 2010. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
It was hailed as the “birth of a new profession.”
Four years ago, Ontario became the first province in Canada to regulate paralegals. Then-attorney general Michael Bryant promised that the newly proclaimed Access to Justice Act would raise the status of paralegals, protect the public and provide more choice for consumers.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Almost two-thirds of Ontarians who appear in family court are now unrepresented. They can’t afford a lawyer and — thanks to the new law — they can longer use a paralegal for uncontested divorces, child custody arrangements or financial support orders.
“I lost my whole practice,” said Rivka Labelle, a paralegal with 14 years’ experience in family law. “I cared about these people. I helped them work out some very creative agreements.”
She charged $75 an hour. Most family lawyers charge $300 to $1,000 per hour.
Labelle now splits her time between small-claims cases, landlord-tenant disputes and paperwork in a lawyer’s office.
This is not what Bryant intended. When he placed paralegals under the regulatory authority of the Law Society of Upper Canada, his aim was to make justice more accessible and more legal services more affordable.
The Law Society had its own ideas. The first thing it did was bar paralegals from family law. It said this field was so complex — and the consequences of bad advice so devastating for children — that it should be restricted to family lawyers.
Paralegals were stunned, but helpless.
Some, like Labelle, shifted to other areas of legal work. Some left the profession entirely.
The result was soon evident. Ontario’s family courts filled up with unprepared litigants. They had no understanding of the law, no idea what documents they needed and no one — except the judge — to guide them.
Last spring, Marshall Yarmus, a scrappy paralegal who cut his teeth in small claims court, decided to take on the Law Society. He put a motion before its annual meeting, asking for a review of the new rules and proposing that paralegals be allowed to prepare family law documents, represent clients in court on certain matters and draft uncontested divorces.
A sharp clash of wills ensued.
The Family Lawyers Association packed the meeting to vote down the motion. “People cannot be making life-altering decisions with incompetent — and I say that in the kindest way — but truly incompetent advisers,” said Georgina Carson, chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s family law section.
The Paralegal Society of Ontario rallied its troops to fight for their lost business. It accused the Law Society of behaving like a fox in charge of a henhouse.
Before the vote, Yarmus withdrew his motion, assured by officials of the Law Society that a review of the scope of practice for paralegals would be undertaken.
He now regrets that move. He thinks he was duped. This month, he served notice that he plans to launch a new challenge at the Law Society’s next annual meeting. This time, he is drumming up support among women’s organizations, legal reform groups and sympathetic judges and lawyers.
It is hard for an outsider to judge whether this is a battle over legal standards or turf protection.
What is clear — even to the Law Society — is that Ontarians aren’t getting the help they need to resolve life-disrupting family law problems. Its own research (the Law Society is midway through a study of unmet legal needs) shows lower- and middle-income parents are priced out of the market for legal services.
These people used to patronize paralegals. Now they can’t. And the Law Society isn’t offering them an affordable alternative.
The government promised more choice. The Law Society delivered less. Ontarians deserve an explanation.
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