Unbundled services empower self-represented family litigants

By Paul Russell, Contributor

A limited-scope retainer is a great option for anyone whose income is too high to qualify for Legal Aid but below what’s needed to pay for the full services of a lawyer, says Oakville family lawyer and mediator Robina Khan.

“Many who fall into this gap feel their only option is to represent themselves,” says Khan, a lawyer with Paul Family Law Professional Corporation.

“A limited-scope retainer, also known as unbundled services, is the middle ground between having full representation and no representation at all,” she tells

Khan says she regularly encounters clients who feel they can’t afford to hire a lawyer for litigation, but are leery about entering the judicial process on their own.

With limited-scope retainers, lawyers can discuss the case with the client and break it down into individual components or tasks, she says.

“In those discussions, you determine what parts of the case the client is going to be responsible for, and what part the lawyer will be retained to do,” Khan says.

She says this approach gives clients a sense of empowerment.

“The client remains in control of their legal expenses,” Khan says, adding that not all lawyers offer such services, so it’s important for those seeking legal assistance to verify it in advance.

Khan says a meeting, where the client can assess the lawyer’s experience in family law and their ability to work within a limited-scope retainer, is a critical next step.

“Make sure you are comfortable with that person,” she says.

Prospective clients should also ask for a copy of their retainer, Khan says, “because it will be different from the traditional retainer for full services.”

It’s crucial that all aspects of the case are discussed before the retainer agreement is struck, Khan stresses.

“Make sure the tasks of each person are very clearly defined so that there are no misunderstandings about who's responsible for what,” she says. “Ultimately with unbundled services, the client remains responsible for his or her own case. The lawyer is only retained to assist with any discretely defined task requested by the client.”

Khan says limited-scope retainers can also be helpful when a client wants very focused legal services, such as when they have been served with documents and are not sure about what to do next.

“Or maybe someone will say to a lawyer, ‘I want to represent myself in court on this matter, but I want you to walk me through how to present my arguments in a way that will be better received by the judge,’” she says.

The popularity of these retainers is growing in the legal community, Khan says, though it has not been embraced by all.

"To me, unbundling allows me to offer a variety of services to meet a diversity of needs,” Khan says.

In response to the growing trend of unbundling legal services, the Law Society of Ontario amended the Rules of Professional Conduct and Paralegal Rules of Conduct to offer guidance to lawyers and paralegals who provide unbundled services.

“I hope to see the unbundling trend continue, as I think it is off to a great start, and believe it has the potential to increase access to justice in our legal system,” Khan says.

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