Accounting for Law
Family, The Profession

Bencher election may have impact on splitting couples: Benmor

The upcoming election of Law Society of Ontario (LSO) benchers could have a significant impact on separating and divorcing couples, says Toronto family lawyer, mediator, and parenting co-ordinator Steven Benmor.

“It's critical that there be representation amongst the 40 benchers from lawyers that have a sympathy, an understanding, and appreciation of the plight of divorcing couples in Ontario, and the type of legal services they need to be able to have their rights protected,” says Benmor, principal of Benmor Family Law Group.

The benchers, to be elected on April 30 — 20 lawyers from inside Toronto and 20 from outside — along with five paralegals, take office on May 23, the regulator’s website says.

Benchers set regulations for the licensing and disciplining of Ontario’s 52,000 lawyers and 9,000 paralegals. “Their main goal, their written, coded goal, is the protection of the public,” Benmor tells AdvocateDaily.com.

An important issue facing the benchers is the lack of affordability of family law services for separating and divorcing spouses, Benmor says.

“The law society has a role in trying to solve the problem, which is people who are divorcing need lawyers who are competent, capable, and affordable,” he says.

Legal fees run from $300 to $700 an hour, with divorces costing between $10,000 and $50,000, Benmor says.

Half to 75 per cent of people going through a divorce don’t use lawyers, he says. “Why? Because legal aid covers people at the low end of the income scale, typically under $20,000 a year.”

Accessibility would increase if the five-decades-old legal aid program were expanded to serve more middle-income people, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Benmor says.

As things stand, it’s mostly people with an annual income of $200,000, or more, who can afford lawyers, Benmor says.

“That means people with incomes between $20,000 and $200,000 often go without lawyers,” he says. “This segment of society is in a real pickle. They have a really hard time handling divorce.”

The new benchers may be able to increase affordability in several ways, Benmor says.

First, they will continue fine-tuning a plan to allow non-lawyers, who generally charge less, to serve separating and divorcing couples in limited ways, the law society website says.

The plan was developed in response to the Family Legal Services Review completed in 2016 by former Ontario Court chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo.

It will include a licensing framework for paralegals, and others, to provide family law services such as process navigation, completion of some forms, and possibly other areas outside the courtroom, the society’s website says. The LSO will also assess what legal services, including advocacy, it might be in the public interest for non-lawyers to provide.

A second proposal facing benchers that could increase affordability is allowing organizations run by non-lawyers to provide legal services, Benmor says. The theory is that these Alternative Business Structures (ABS) will unleash market forces that lower the price of legal services, he says.

“In the last election, there was a lot of pressure from lawyers who are against ABS. As a result, it was not approved, and they're examining it again at this bencher election,” Benmor says.

He notes that in Washington state, American non-lawyers — called limited licence legal technicians — provide basic family law services.

A third way benchers may be able to lower legal fees is by authorizing new law schools, Benmor says.

“Eventually if there are more law schools, there will be more lawyers, and with more lawyers, there will be more pressure to lower the prices of legal fees,” Benmor says, pointing to Ryerson University, which plans to open a new law school by 2020.

The proposed school would educate students in the business of law — including profits, margins, expenses, and overhead — subjects not taught in typical law schools, he says.

Benmor says the result should be graduates with enhanced business skills who will be better placed to offer affordable legal services. “So that's a new evolution that might be relevant in the future.”

With access to legal services at stake, it’s important that family lawyers be elected as benchers, a group in which they have been historically under-represented, he says.

“There are unique concerns and considerations by family lawyers, not just in the big cities like Toronto, Windsor, Kingston and, Ottawa, but also in the small communities, because wherever you are in Ontario, there's marriage and divorce,” Benmor says.

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