TLA calls on province to reject notion of paralegals in family law
The Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) is urging the Ministry of Ontario’s Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada to reject any paralegal licence to practise in family law, says TLA president Melanie Manchee.
The lawyer group is concerned about recent recommendations that suggest Ontario family law clients could be well served by having specialized licensed paralegals act independently in matters of custody, simple child support, restraining orders, and simple divorce, says a statement from the TLA.
“While licensed paralegals provide competent legal services, in defined areas, and hold an important position in the justice system in Ontario, their training and experience can never provide them with the skill set lawyers have, to view the family law client’s issues in total,” Manchee says.
The TLA comments after the release of Justice Annemarie E. Bonkalo’s Family Services Review, Improving Access to Justice for Families: Making the Family Court System Easier to Navigate, which addresses the provision of legal services by persons other than lawyers. The report’s recommendations for improvements to the system to provide better access to justice for litigants include unbundled services, coaching, and better administrative processes in the courthouse.
While the TLA agrees with many of the report's recommendations, the association points to concerns it has with paralegals taking on some of the work involved with family law matters.
“An issue as important as custody cannot be addressed without an examination of all circumstances of the family, including each parent’s overall financial position, property and liabilities, mobility rights, past or potential domestic violence, effects of new partners and their family status, etc.,” Manchee says. “A non-lawyer representative may be trained in completing the documents necessary to seek a divorce, but may not know to advise a client of the consequences of the divorce, such as the limitation period for seeking equalization of net family property, entitlement to survivor benefits in pensions, and the loss of extended health coverage.”
Manchee says family law advice cannot be given in “silo-type responses” to narrowly defined issues.
“Paralegals do not have the substantive legal knowledge to advise family law clients about their global rights and responsibilities. Such a status is likely to lead to disastrous results,” she says.
Manchee says there is no doubt that the family law system is in crisis and requires major change. She notes the first — and most important — step is to fully implement the Unified Family Court across Ontario.
“There is no possible rationale to justify any further delay in this endeavour, after 40 years have passed since the first such court opened in Hamilton,” she says. “Rather than expand the role of lesser-trained representatives for participants in the family law courts, the TLA urges the immediate roll out of the Unified Family Court in all areas, and supports expansion of mediation services and improved court administration.”
Further, Manchee notes that Ontario family law clients, in order to have real access to justice, “deserve competent legal advice that addresses all issues, and such advice can only come from the education and accreditation process received by lawyer licensees."
The TLA invites members who would like to participate in a discussion concerning the Bonkalo Report to attend a meeting on April 5 at 5 p.m. in the TLA Boardroom, Room S206, 361 University Ave. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.