Family

High stakes in family law cases require lawyer's expertise

Driven by the high number of self-represented parties in Ontario’s family courts, a review is looking into whether non-lawyers should be allowed to handle certain matters — but there may be too many risks associated with this option, Toronto family lawyer Michael Stangarone tells Lawyers Weekly.

As the article notes, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada recently launched a family law review, led by Annemarie Bonkalo, former chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice. Bonkalo will investigate whether other legal providers, including paralegals, law clerks and students, should be allowed to handle certain family law matters and recommend procedures, mechanisms and safeguards that would ensure the quality of services.

However, explains Stangarone, a partner with MacDonald and Partners LLP, “Ensuring that all areas of family law are supervised by a lawyer and not handled by non-lawyers will assist in protecting families, which is really what this is all about.”

Stangarone tells Lawyers Weekly he has received a lot of negative feedback on the issue from lawyers in several practice areas.

“Family law cases that may appear simple can be far more complex and require the expertise of family law counsel, given the stakes. The stakes in family law cases are very high because we are dealing with real people, and attempting to solve their problems during their most vulnerable time. The stakes are high because cases often involve children,” he says.

He also pointed to cases that involve complex property issues and support, which “should not be left up to non-lawyers. There are serious potential liability issues if, for example, a property division case is mishandled, and dire consequences if an access case is not properly taken care of.”

Some litigants may not have the financial resources to retain counsel, but Stangarone says improvements to the legal aid system would provide more access to justice. He also suggests modernizing courts.

“If courts provided free access to Wi-Fi, for example, or allowed lawyers to participate in conferences by Skype or conference, that would reduce costs for clients,” he says in the article.

Although some lawyers have suggested the option to have paralegals complete smaller issues, such as an uncontested divorce at reduced rates, Stangarone says “employing a junior lawyer at a reduced rate while supervised by senior counsel might also be the solution.”

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