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Tami Moscoe sm photo by Angelyn Francis

New Ontario family law project helps lawyers provide unbundled services

Thursday, March 21, 2019 @ 9:50 AM | By Amanda Jerome

The launch of Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Services Project is being lauded by the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) as well as by members of the family bar and bench as a “tremendous achievement” in improving access to justice.

The project, which officially launched March 19, provides an online directory of lawyers who provide limited scope retainers, legal coaching and summary legal counsel in family law cases for Ontarians searching for unbundled services.

Tami Moscoe image photo by Angelyn Francis

Tami Moscoe, senior family counsel in the Office of the Chief Justice at the Superior Court of Justice

Tami Moscoe, the project’s steering committee chair and senior family counsel in the Office of the Chief Justice at the Superior Court of Justice, said inspiration for the project came from recommendations made in the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters' report “Meaningful Change for Family Justice: Beyond Wise Words” released in 2013, and the Family Legal Services Review, released in 2016 by Justice Annemarie Bonkalo, which highlighted the need for access to legal services.

Having worked in the private family bar, Moscoe was sensitive to lawyers “taking the heat,” as she said there was an assumption by some in the access to justice community that family lawyers weren’t “doing enough” and had created the access problem.

“I spent almost 10 years in private family law practice, and now almost 10 years working in the government in various capacities, [and] I knew that family lawyers did a lot, either unpaid or at reduced rates,” she explained, adding that she wanted to do something that would support lawyers in providing unbundled services in a sustainable way.

With the support of various associations and a $250,000 grant from The Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund, the project was born.

Moscoe said the committee has “tried to make it as easy as possible” for lawyers to get involved with the project and have their names added to the directory.  

“If lawyers want to join the roster they need to meet some very basic experience requirements and they need to do the mandatory training. The experience requirements are three years of practice with 30 per cent of that being in family law,” she said, adding that the committee wanted to make the project accessible to recent calls.

The mandatory training program is a webinar, which is accredited for two professionalism hours of CPD by the Law Society of Ontario (LSO).

Moscoe noted that the summary legal counsel aspect of the project is a pilot currently being done only in Barrie, one day a week.

“We started it in November,” she said, adding that the pilot consists of two lawyers from the private bar being available at the court to help the public.

“They’re there in their regular private bar capacity and if a client chooses to hire them they’re hired for an hour, or two, or three, to help the client make as much progress as possible at that event,” she explained, adding there’s no legal aid or ministry funding, so the litigants are paying for the unbundled services themselves.

“We fixed the price for that service, so clients in Barrie are charged $200 an hour,” said Moscoe, noting that the project committee consulted with the local family bar when setting the rate to ensure it was accessible but also sustainable for the lawyers involved.

Malcolm Mercer image Photo by Angelyn Francis

LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer

At the event to celebrate the project’s launch, LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer said the initiative marks “an important milestone in the justice sector.”

“To understate the obvious, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of unrepresented family litigants in Ontario. Today, in over half of family law cases, one or both parties are appearing in court without a lawyer. Family law is fundamentally important to the people of Ontario.

There is probably no area of law that so directly affects so many people,” he said, stressing that the legal system needs to find innovative ways to provide families with information and legal services.

“The project we’re launching tonight brings us one step closer along this crucial path. The challenges, and there are many in family law, require everyone to work together in order to bring down barriers. Collaboration is the key,” he added, noting he’s pleased to see the private bar, the courts and The Law Foundation of Ontario come together to work “tirelessly to make it easier for people to get the legal services they need, when they need it, at a price that they can afford.”

Mercer said that part of the law society’s family law action plan is to promote unbundling and that as the legal community celebrates the launch of the project, he wants to congratulate the family bar on “overcoming another hurdle.”

“It takes drive and collaboration across the justice sector and between the justice partners to find meaningful solutions to help address these pressing challenges,” he added.

The chair of The Law Foundation of Ontario, Linda Rothstein, said family law is always “top of mind” at the foundation during discussions on access to justice.  

“Why is that? Because we recognize the critical importance of access to justice in family law. For many Ontarians, it may be their only direct contact with the justice system and it occurs at a moment of crisis for them, the kind of crisis that many of us can identify with. We all want to support them as best we can,” she said, noting that the foundation recently made 26 grants worth $3.25 million to support family law initiatives.

“We were very pleased to support this particular project because it has so many exciting elements,” Rothstein  added, noting that by “training lawyers and encouraging them to innovate in their practice model” and by letting the public know where they can obtain a limited scope retainer, the project “aims to leverage the deep expertise of the family law bar” to make services more accessible and affordable to the public.

Justice George Czutrin image photo by Angelyn Francis

Justice George Czutrin

Justice George Czutrin, a senior judge of the family court at the Superior Court of Justice, congratulated everyone involved in “this tremendous achievement” and said the steering committee had gone “above and beyond” their day jobs to share their expertise.

“This project is a perfect example of family justice partners identifying the pressing need, mainly the challenges that families, spouses and ex-partners face in accessing affordable family law services and working collaboratively to address that challenge in a concrete and meaningful way,” he said, noting that he’s confident the public will find the website “incredibly helpful” in understanding how limited scope retainers work and how they can find a lawyer who will provide the specific services they are seeking.

“Moreover, the tools that have been built to support lawyers who are interested in practising this way will be a significant help to lawyers who are just starting to offer unbundled legal services. Now that the project has been launched, we will share the news about it with [family] bar judges across Ontario who are actually aware of the pressing need for affordable family law services in their communities,” he said, applauding members of the family bar who have already adopted the project and encouraging those who have not to consider doing so.

Annie Kenet, chair of OBA’s Family Law section, said “organizations often talk about access to justice: what does it mean? What are the concerns? How do we address them? What can we be doing? How can we support initiatives?”

“Everybody says they’re pro access to justice, but what do we do about it? Every now and again, something comes up and you can actually point at it and say, ‘look, there, that’s access to justice.’ And that is a genuine reason to celebrate,” she added, stressing that the OBA is honoured to act as a partner in this project and says will continue to support it moving forward.

“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to say, ‘Access to justice is there, it’s real, it’s possible and here’s how you can participate,’” she said.

The project’s advisory committee is comprised of members from the OBA’s Family Law section; the Federation of Ontario Law Associations; the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts — Ontario Chapter; The Advocates’ Society; the Family Lawyers Association; the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice; as well as various experts in non-traditional legal services delivery and researchers.

The steering committee includes Helena Birt, a family lawyer and former provincial manager of Family Duty Counsel Services at Legal Aid Ontario; Nicholas Bala, professor of family and children’s law at Queens University; Rachel Birnbaum, is the project’s principal researcher and is a professor at King’s University College at Western University; Brian Burke, a partner at Epstein Cole LLP; Lisa Eisen, founder of Family Law: A La Carte; Cynthia Mancia, a partner at Chappell Partners LLP; and Janet Whitehead, a lawyer and mediator with Whitehead Law and Mediation.

Photos taken by Angelyn Francis and provided by the Law Society of Ontario.