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Access to justice: Coaching vs. lawyering | Jo-Anne Stark

Monday, May 17, 2021 @ 11:22 AM | By Jo-Anne Stark,

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo: I have an issue with a tenant who is renting some property I own. They claim that I failed to repair an appliance and that there are now bugs in their place; they are withholding my rent payment. I was served with papers and there is a hearing in three months. I talked to a lawyer but they wanted a large retainer — their hourly rates seemed very high. How can I get some legal help?

A surprising number of Canadians have legal issues — fortunately, many of these issues are minor; however, that also makes it unreasonable for people to hire a lawyer to represent them. Without a lawyer, a person is left trying to find information online or having to wait up to an hour on the phone to talk to a clerk at the residential tenancy branch — only to discover that the help is not really that helpful.

When I sat as an arbitrator for landlord-tenant disputes, the hearings often went on much longer than necessary — as people were unprepared and unfamiliar with the process. It was frustrating to see these people struggling to present their positions, yet it was clear that all they needed was a helping hand to guide them.

Thousands of people across Canada are looking for someone to coach or mentor them through a legal process. A lawyer who is properly trained in legal coaching can simply offer coaching services, and the client can pay as matters move forward. In this instance, the landlord could hire a lawyer for coaching services without a retainer being required up front. The client then schedules periodic coaching sessions with the legal coach — either by telephone or a video call. The process begins by helping the client define what their goals are: do they want to end this tenancy? Do they want to meet the tenant halfway on expenses? Do they feel strongly that the tenant is simply wrong and want their rent money paid in full? A good legal coach can help a client see what options are out there and help them figure out what might be the best solution.

Once the goal is defined, the coach can help the client break down the work into steps that are manageable. In this example, it may begin by having the client review the claim and list all of the issues that the tenant is raising, then preparing a counterclaim in response. The coach can provide the links to the forms that need to be completed, saving the client time and frustration.

Once the client completes that step, he can meet with his coach to review the work and carry out the next step: filing and serving the response. Once again, the coach can easily guide the client through that process. The client leaves the session knowing exactly what they must do to file and serve documents correctly.  

At the next session, the client may be ready to collect in photographs, the tenancy agreement, receipts and other relevant documents and evidence, which the coach can help them organize by legal issue. This is where an experienced coach offers the most value: the coach has a much better sense of what the decision maker will be looking for. In addition, the coach may be able to offer some links to key cases or sections of relevant legislation to help the client learn more about what their rights and obligations are as a landlord and how those might be used to strengthen their argument during the hearing. 

As the coaching sessions continue, the client will be working on their case, building their arguments and preparing for the hearing date. The coach can be a sounding board for the client to practise what they will say during the hearing and can explain what that process will look like. The entire time that the coach is working with the client, the client is gaining knowledge and self-confidence — preparing them for the day that they present their case.

Legal coaching can improve access to justice by helping people understand their rights and the law so that they can present their case more effectively. I believe that all Canadians should have the ability to access basic legal services such as these. In this example, the client might spend $150 or so on each coaching session, scheduled in regular intervals leading up to the hearing date. Alternatively, the client might agree to a monthly coaching package and their credit card is charged at the end of the month — making the payments predictable for both the client and the lawyer. 

Clients who receive assistance through legal coaching are, in my view, among the most satisfied clients I have ever worked with. Not only do they appreciate having legal help for a fraction of the cost of hiring a lawyer to represent them, but they almost always walk away from the process feeling more knowledgeable and much more confident about dealing with a legal matter or dispute. Whether you are representing your client in a case or you are coaching the client to represent themselves, there is no guarantee of the outcome. However, the difference is that coaching is about empowering your client. And that makes for a very satisfied client at the end of the day.

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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