“We have to start, and this is our beginning”NSRLP
“We have to start, and this is our beginning”
With these words, Howard Goldblatt, the Chair of the Ontario Law Society’s A2J Committee, ushered in a new era of regulatory reform in Ontario that finally recognizes the need for change.
The first step is expanding paralegal services to include some family matters, a proposal vocally opposed by many in the Family Bar.
A long awaited decision on Bonkalo
Last February, the Bonkalo Review of Family Legal Services recommended expansion of paralegal services to include some designated family matters. Bonkalo’s cautious and common-sense proposal was a response to the crisis of lack of representation among family litigants, who are coming to court without lawyers in record numbers – 57% across the province.
The Bonkalo proposal drew bitter recriminations and complaints. Instantly polarizing, the paralegal issue became a litmus test of “loyalty to the club” for many lawyers. I know from personal experience how hard it has been to find any family lawyers who will speak up publicly for even the principle of these reforms.
The simple reality – that the public needs more affordable choices for family legal services – was drowned out in the cacophony of complaints from lawyers. Which is why NSRLP created its online petition addressed to Law Society Treasurer, Paul Schabas – who has worked hard to build support for the paralegal expansion – and the Attorney General. The petition garnered almost 1000 signatures and many eloquent and heartfelt comments. Thanks to everyone who supported this.
NSRLP is proud to have contributed to raising awareness on the volume of self-represented litigants in Ontario – almost 80% in some family courts. Since 2013 we have been working hard to draw attention to the major reason for this: the unaffordability of legal services. Despite evidence from studies in Canada, the US, and England and Wales that all reach the same conclusion, conveying that message has been a hard road – lawyers resent being told that the public can not afford them. But last Friday, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi appeared before Convocation and made the very same point.
So let’s move forward
The Ontario Benchers have now adopted the proposal of the A2J Committee. The plan is to first develop a training and licensing process to enable paralegals to offer family litigants assistance with form completion, motions to change, and uncontested divorces. The second phase will consider expanding the scope of para-professional work more widely, including advocacy roles.
Some in the Family Bar have cast this proposal as the thin end of the wedge – taking away their monopoly. Protecting that monopoly has been a holy grail for some (“the hill I will die on” as one lawyer expressed it). But lawyers have priced themselves out of reach of most Canadians. The legal profession created this problem, and we need to eat that. And start looking for solutions.
We hope and believe that sensible and dedicated members of the Ontario Family Bar can and will get behind this proposal, make sure that the new licensing training program is as good as it can possibly be, and work alongside family paralegals to enhance Access to Justice for Ontarians.
I want to end with one of the hundreds of comments we received on our petition earlier this year, one that states the issue for the public simply and frankly:
“Lawyers have priced themselves out of the reach of the majority of Canadians, and Legal Aid screens out the majority of Canadians. Lawyers need to unbundle their services, and paralegals need to be given a much wider scope of practice in order to restore ‘justice’ to the justice system.”