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Affordable legal representation should be election issue

Affordable access to justice — particularly in family law court — is an important issue that should be on candidates’ campaign agendas for the upcoming federal election, says Toronto paralegal Marian Lippa.

“This issue affects thousands of people across Canada and making access to justice an election issue would help effect change,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com

Lippa says she gets calls weekly from family court litigants who are looking for affordable representation to help them as they go through a divorce, try to settle support payments or child custody matters. 

“I have to turn them away because of the restrictions on paralegals in Ontario, and that’s sad,” she says. “It hurts me because I know their situation. They don’t qualify for legal aid and they can’t afford to pay lawyer fees. They end up being unrepresented and are forced to muddle their way through a family proceeding on their own.”

She notes it can be time consuming for the courts because self-litigants often come to court unprepared and matters have to be adjourned. 

“The judge often has to explain to self-represented litigants the process as they go and that can cause delays,” she says. 

Lippa isn’t alone in calling for candidates to talk with voters about key justice issues such as affordable legal representation. Julie Macfarlane, a law professor with the University of Windsor,  says that more than half the people currently involved in family court proceedings are representing themselves because they cannot afford the services of a lawyer, reports the CBC

In May 2013, Macfarlane released a report on self-represented litigants; the study 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. This report noted that the numbers don’t include people who start the legal process with a lawyer and later become self-represented, says the newspaper.

Macfarlane says the problem is compounded by restrictions on how paralegals can assist litigants. 

In 2006, Ontario’s Attorney General gave the Law Society of Upper Canada the power to regulate paralegals in the province, says the article. Prior to that, paralegals could represent people in some family court cases in Ontario with the permission of a judge. Following regulation, the Law Society has said paralegals aren’t permitted to represent or prepare any documents in family court.

As the professional regulator, the Law Society sets the standards for education and training, competence, rules of conduct, licensing and insurance requirements for paralegals in the province. Their scope of practice includes representing people in small claims and provincial offences courts, some criminal cases and some immigration matters, as well as appearance before boards and tribunals, explains the article. 

Some legal experts have suggested that not enough is being done by Ontario’s Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada to deal with a crisis in the growing numbers of unrepresented litigants in family courts, says the newspaper.

Lippa notes that other jurisdictions, including Washington State and the United Kingdom, have permitted non-lawyers to represent family law litigants.

Specifically, Washington State now licenses non-lawyers — called Limited License Technicians (LLTs) — who are permitted to prepare court documents for family court, inform clients about the law, do legal research and help clients prepare for proceedings.

Lippa says it’s unfortunate that paralegals aren’t utilized more in the Ontario justice system. 

“They are an alternative and affordable option to provide representation for lower court matters — why isn’t the province using them for family court, where there is a crisis when it comes to self-represented litigants?” she asks. 

Making this an issue in the federal election would bring it to the forefront.

“Many people don’t even know that paralegals exist — if they did they may understand that the profession could assist, if given the opportunity, with the access to justice issue plaguing our justice system.”

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