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Review to consider expanding family legal services a positive step

The announcement on Tuesday that Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada are reviewing whether the delivery of family legal services should be expanded to include professionals who are not lawyers, such as paralegals and law clerks, is a positive move forward in the quest to improve access to justice, says Toronto paralegal Marian Lippa.

“This is an important initiative by the government of Ontario to better understand the needs of the public when it comes to family legal services,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com

The attorney general appointed Justice Annemarie E. Bonkalo to lead the review and  she will be holding focused discussions with key stakeholders. She will use the information collected during this consultation to make recommendations to the Ontario government and LSUC, says the government’s website

Lippa, LSUC bencher, says the law society, as the regulator, looks forward to receiving the recommendations from Bonkalo in September. 

"It is a function of the society to ensure, in the public's interest, that all persons who practise law or provide legal services in Ontario meet professional standards of learning, competence and conduct," she says. 

The review is designed to: identify the legal services at different stages in a family law matter which, if provided by persons in addition to lawyers, could improve the family justice system by better enabling people to resolve their family law disputes; identify persons other than lawyers (e.g., paralegals, law clerks and/or law students) who may be capable of providing those family legal services with appropriate safeguards put in place (e.g., education, training); and recommend procedures, mechanisms and/or safeguards (such as education, training, insurance, regulation and/or oversight) to ensure the quality of family legal services provided by alternate legal service providers.

Currently, licensed paralegals can provide specific legal services described in the LSUC bylaws, including giving advice, negotiating a person’s legal interests and representing a person in procedures taking place in Small Claims Court, under the Provincial Offences Act in the Ontario Court of Justice, under the Criminal Code in a summary conviction court, where the potential sentence is six months or less imprisonment or before a provincial or federal tribunal, including the Financial Services Commission of Ontario.

“Creating a specialized family law area is one way to expand the scope of practice for those paralegals who complete additional education and/or training,” says the government website.

The scope of the review does not include child protection matters under the Child and Family Services Act, the website says.

A 2013 study by Julie Macfarlane, a law professor with the University of Windsor, found that in Ontario in 2011/12, 64 per cent of individuals involved in family law cases were self-represented and those numbers were higher in two Toronto courts — Jarvis Avenue and Sheppard Avenue  — where 73 per cent and 74 per cent respectively were self-represented, reports the Ottawa Citizen

Some jurisdictions have expanded the scope of practice for paralegals to improve access to justice. 

The Law Society of B.C., the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Provincial Court launched a two-year pilot project in 2013 giving designated paralegals a limited right of appearance in court. 

The Washington Supreme Court in 2012 adopted a new rule to allow Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs) to assist clients in certain limited family legal matters.

Lippa, who has pushed for better access in the family court system, says the consultation process in Ontario will likely hear from a number of stakeholders, including paralegals, who have important views on whether paralegals or other legal service providers should be allowed to take on some family law matters.

"As a paralegal, I have been a long-time advocate for my profession to handle some family law matters," says Lippa, who is also a certified family law clerk. "The consultation will help determine the need for, and ability to, expand the availability of legal services in this area of law in Ontario."

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