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Paralegals in family law could increase costs

Allowing paralegals to practise family law could drive costs in the system up rather than down, says Toronto-area family lawyer Ella Aiaseh.

A report released earlier this year by former Ontario Court chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo recommended that paralegals be allowed to provide legal services in certain family law matters without the supervision of lawyers as part of a broader effort to boost access to justice.

But Aiaseh, an associate with Hummingbird Lawyers LLP in Vaughan, Ont., doubts the move would have the desired effect.

“I understand the argument and the importance of it, but much of the time when you have people with less training in an adversarial system, the cost of the fight goes up,” Aiaseh tells AdvocateDaily.com.

She says even her colleagues at the bar should be subject to extra education before taking on family law cases as they are renowned for their complexity. 

“There are so many intricacies and nuances in family law, and as practitioners, we're constantly learning. I don’t think having people take it on with less training is a solution.”   

Bonkalo’s report suggests that limited use of "properly trained and regulated” paralegals would be better than no representation in cases involving custody, access, simple child support, restraining orders, and simple and joint divorces without property.

"People who do not qualify for legal aid and feel they cannot afford a lawyer should have a greater ability to obtain some legal assistance in family law,'' Bonkalo said in the report, which notes that more than 57 per cent of Ontarians in family court went unrepresented in 2014-2015, according to the province’s attorney general.

But Aiaseh says the boundaries between different aspects of a family law matter are easily blurred.

“It’s hard to split up a case and say, ‘this one is only financial,’ or ‘this one is just custody.’ When people are separating, their lives are so entwined that they need someone who can address all the issues at once, and look at the case as a whole,” she says.

“People say they want a simple divorce, but they only do that when they don’t know their rights or obligations.”

Aiaseh says a better option would involve more provincial funding for counselling for separating couples.

“If they can be educated on the cost of family law proceedings and the benefits of settlement, that would make it more affordable for those caught in the gap between legal aid and hiring a lawyer,” she says. “As long as people are fighting, the costs go up, so if you can help prevent emotion from becoming the driving force behind their decisions, that will help.”   

Both the provincial government and the Law Society of Upper Canada are seeking public input on Bonkalo’s recommendations, with the aim of developing an action plan by the fall of 2017. 

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