Two Tales Illustrating the Importance of Unbundled Legal Services for Access to Justice

Two Tales Illustrating the Importance of Unbundled Legal Services for Access to Justice

This week NSRLP released the National Database of Professionals Assisting SRLs, along with a video (watch here: encouraging lawyers to consider offering unbundled legal services, and featuring endorsements by Chief Justice Robert Bauman of British Columbia, Chief Justice Michael MacDonald of Nova Scotia, and Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco of the Ontario Superior Court.

This is an initiative that we have been working on since last spring, slowly coaxing lawyers and others to step forward and become part of the National Database so that clients can find them. Before that, since its inception in 2013 NSRLP has promoted the idea of unbundled legal services, legal coaching, the use of paralegals where appropriate, and relevant assistance by other professionals via this blog, countless speeches to law societies and bar associations, and media interviews promoting affordable legal services for the primarily self-represented. Today we also release our NSRLP resource for lawyers considering offering unbundled legal services: The Nuts and Bolts of Unbundling.

Why has NSRLP devoted this much time and attention to this particular initiative? Not because it is the Access to Justice panacea. But it is a critical part of building a real solution – and central to NSRLP’s mission to advocate for affordable legal assistance.

Because the 2013 National Study – as well as credible studies in other countries – show that:
– Most people cannot afford to pay for full representation by a lawyer
– Most people want and search for affordable legal assistance
– Virtually none find the limited, targeted, assistance they can afford

Here are two stories from self-represented litigants about the difference accessing unbundled legal services made to their journey through the legal system.

If you are still in any doubt about the need for these services – and if you are considering joining our National Database so that clients can find you – please read these accounts and reflect.

“I remain very grateful”

Midway through my journey through our justice system, I found myself unable to continue retaining my lawyer due to cost. My legal matter would span 13 months, include numerous interim hearings and ultimately culminate in a nine-day trial.

As the months went by and my finances became depleted, I found myself doing everything I could to learn how to function in a court room without a lawyer’s expertise. Although preparing for interim hearings was stressful and riddled with painstaking difficulty, the thought of representing myself at trial was unthinkable.

With no legal training, how does one go about preparing for a trial?
I began cold-calling lawyers, offering a brief background of my situation and asking if I could pay an hourly rate on a consultative basis for procedural assistance to prepare for trial. I was turned down repeatedly, and told that this wasn’t how things are done and that a retainer would be required. The second-to-last lawyer I spoke to was a lady with whom I set my dignity aside. I begged her and pleaded with her to allow me to pay her $400 an hour in order for me to attain information that I desperately needed. She told me that she wasn’t able to help me.

After months of trying to find a lawyer who could help me, a friend heard of someone who was paying a lawyer on a consultative basis. I did not know at the time that hiring a lawyer on a task-by-task basis is referred to as unbundled legal service. I was given the name of this lawyer and set up an appointment. I met with him for 2 hours every two weeks and paid him $350 an hour. He consulted with me on trial procedures and recommended several books.

I remain very grateful to this lawyer. Without his help, it is unlikely that I would have been able to represent myself at trial. Accessing unbundled legal services meant improving my access to the justice system. Although few people would argue with the statement that having a lawyer represent them on a full retainer is preferable to limited scope representation if money is no object, giving the public options and access to legal services is critical when financial requirements require it.

“God bless lawyers who are willing to do this”

After three years, I have just finished my legal case. I had the assistance of counsel on a limited scope retainer to help me both prepare and navigate a lengthy family trial. God bless lawyers who are willing to do this! I want lawyers to know that these services are critical to SRLs and that their role is vital in assisting with the translation of what first feels like a foreign language (the law) and the overwhelming procedures that make up our legal system.

A year and a half into my case I no longer had the financial resources to continue to pay for conventional full legal representation. My case was very complex. What started as a family law matter led to what was described to me as a “starve her out strategy”. Additional civil and small claims actions were taken out against me. At the time, I was a single unemployed mother, at home caring for a young child.

The power imbalance was severe to say the least. I was now self- represented and navigating multiple court systems, in multiple court jurisdictions, up against 3 different law firms at any given time.

Two lawyers whom I had previously retained offered me “strategy sessions”, as I moved forward with each case as a SRL. One of those lawyers taught me the importance of “staying above the trees and not getting stuck in the weeds” when giving advice on how to prepare and structure my documents. She walked me through the process of both serving and filing, and the correct forms to use for each – all complex issues that I would otherwise have struggled with and potentially made mistakes. But I needed more, ongoing assistance – as this was not the type of work that these two lawyers generally offered. After I was ordered into an expedited trial by way of an interim hearing (with only 3 months to prepare), I knew I was going to need more help.

I was relieved when a friend referred me to a lawyer, Catherine A. Haber, who then introduced me to her brother Chris Haber – who agreed to take on my trial on short notice by way of a limited scope retainer. I literally lived at their office during evenings and weekends when preparing for trial. They would walk me through my documents, taught me how to prepare briefs and arguments (for example, how to prepare for a witness cross-examination), and ensured that my briefs looked as professional as possible. I, on the other hand, undertook the heavy paperwork which would have ultimately racked up my legal bills under a traditional full representation arrangement. It was still costly, but a lot less costly than if they had represented me on a full representation basis.

I’m a firm believer in finding a positive can-do attitude when faced with adversity, which is why I am so passionate about helping other SRLs by working on Access to Justice and affordable representation. It is important for SRLs to know how to present themselves to a potential lawyer who might help them through unbundled services, as Catherine and Chris helped me.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

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