The Price of Justice 

A report in a The Toronto Star describes how many litigants, unable to qualify for legal aid and faced with exorbitant lawyers’ bills, are choosing to represent themselves in court:

…With legal fees on the rise—the most recent survey from Canadian Lawyer Magazine shows bills for civil and family cases have jumped markedly since the global recession — there’s an increasing number of people who can’t afford a lawyer, according to studies by Julie Macfarlane, a law professor and researcher at the University of Windsor.

“The number of people who are going to court without lawyers has gone up enormously,” Macfarlane said in an interview this week. “We know around half of the people that represent themselves begin with a lawyer. And they run out of money.”

Macfarlane added that, according to her research, more than 50 per cent of people going to family court this year will not have a lawyer.

Cole Webber, with the Parkdale Legal Clinic, said there is a wide swath of people who can’t afford legal bills, but don’t qualify for Legal Aid assistance.

The threshold for eligibility varies depending on household size and whether your case involves domestic violence, but the general qualification limit is an income of $12,000 to $14,000 for a one-person household and $31,000 to $40,000 for a family of five or more.

“You basically have to be on social assistance to even qualify,” Webber said.

Macfarlane agreed, and called it an impediment to universal access to justice.

“This isn’t any longer, ‘there’s a group we have to assist because they’re the poor and vulnerable.’ It’s most people, and it’s certainly the middle class,” she said.

You might think we lawyers enjoy steamrolling over self-represented parties, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Without legal counsel, they often have no one to tell them they’re being unreasonable or that they fundamentally misunderstand the legal principle at issue.

Negotiations and pre-trial procedures can drag on for months longer than they should. And when the case finally makes it to trial, the case is dragged out even longer as the Judge is forced to explain things to the self-represented party.

All things considered, everyone is better served when both parties have legal counsel. That said, many people simply find themselves unable to afford proper representation, while not earning a low enough income to qualify for legal aid.

In response, more lawyers, myself included, are offering unbundled legal services, in which we may assist in drafting documents or reviewing the other party’s materials without committing to appear in court.

Many people don’t realize that they have access to Employee Assistance Programs through which they may be entitled to free or discounted legal services. A common arrangement is for the lawyer to provide a free half-hour consultation, and then agree to represent the person at a 25% discount from his or her regular fee.

Here in Nova Scotia, the Legal Information Association offers a Lawyer Referral Service through which people can obtain a 30-minute consultation for $20.00. A half hour may not seem like much, but you’d be surprised how much ground can be covered in that short time.

Mind you, even after a short consultation of even with a discounted fee, legal proceedings can still be very expensive, and it doesn’t look like governments will step in any time soon to ease the pain. But when you need a lawyer, every bit helps.

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