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LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly

Ontario family law event details recent innovations in service delivery

Friday, October 30, 2020 @ 4:13 PM | By John Schofield

The Law Society of Ontario’s Family Law Action Plan and initiatives by frontline family lawyers are making family law services more accessible than ever to ordinary litigants, says the society’s treasurer.

Family lawyers and other attendees were treated to a whirlwind tour of some of those initiatives at an Oct. 28 virtual event during Ontario’s Access to Justice Week titled Family Justice System: Access to Justice and the Changing Landscape.

LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly

“So much good work is happening on the ground to change how family law clients can get help, both publicly and privately, along the spectrum from public legal education and initial consultations on one end, all the way up to full representation,” LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly said in introducing the 90-minute Zoom event. “I wish to recognize the family law bar for taking on these projects in direct response to challenges that have been identified in terms of access to affordable legal representation.”

The event was hosted by Frances Wood, chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s Family Law Section and a founding partner with Wood Gold LLP, and Tami Moscoe, senior family counsel in the office of the chief justice of the Superior Court.

“COVID has been so challenging in so many ways and also has brought out lots of progress and innovation,” said Moscoe. “So today we’re going to be very quickly profiling a whole host of those innovations in family law service delivery.”

Lorna Yates, a founding partner with Toronto-based Cohen Alves Peeters Yates LLP, began by outlining Advice and Settlement Counsel (ASC) Toronto, a pilot project developed by the 393 University Avenue Bench and Bar Committee and Judiciary and Court Services. The project, which is currently offered online only, is funded by The Law Foundation of Ontario as part of its Family Law Limited Scope Services Project.

Lorna Yates, Cohen Alves Peeters Yates LLP

“Legal aid no longer provided advice or duty counsel to the Superior Court location in Toronto, so we were without any ability to have self-represented litigants get any advice or services in court,” explained Yates. “So as a private bar we decided to step up, and we have a roster of about 50 lawyers in Toronto who are trained and they provide summary legal advice to self-represented litigants.”

Operating from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, ASC charges $200 plus HST for a maximum of one hour of services, and can help self-represented litigants with services such as attending motions, attending court conferences, providing summary advice on settlements and other circumstances and providing to-do lists.

“We’re really available at the convenience of the people who want to use our services and you don’t need to be in Toronto now because we’re virtual,” said Yates. “It’s really meant to be not scary, very user friendly and acccessible.”

Moscoe summarized Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Project, which was launched three years ago — also with funding from The Law Foundation of Ontario. The project involves more than 200 family lawyers in over 50 communities, who can be found through the project website. Unlike ASC Toronto, it does not offer a fixed rate. “But because it’s unbundled,” she said, “it’s much more affordable for the client and the client maintains control over what they are engaging the lawyer to do.

“We still haven’t as a community, or as a justice community, been able to change the understanding that family lawyers can be hired and retained in different ways, so our sticker shock problem remains outstanding,” added Moscoe. “I think the public has been scared off to some extent going to see lawyers, and they're worried that they're going to have to get a retainer of $10,000 and they don’t know where it’s going to get them. So we have 200 family lawyers who have changed the way they’re willing to engage in that discussion. It’s really moved the bar, literally and figuratively, in this area.”

Julia Vera, Family Law Association of Ontario chair

Julia Vera, a Toronto-based sole practitioner and chair of the Family Law Association of Ontario, outlined the free public sessions on family law that the association has offered through the Toronto Public Library for the past three years — and currently through Zoom. The association provides the member giving the presentation with the PowerPoint slides, and the sessions typically run 90 minutes with a Q&A.

The sessions are open to anyone and focus on legal information, not advice, said Vera. “There are no restrictions or limitations based on income and you don’t actually have to be involved in court,” she added, “so you can be at any point in the process or just seeking information to attend the sessions.”

Dana Rotenberg, a program manager with Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), told attendees about the organization’s new Family Justice Centre (FJC, which will launch virtual legal clinics starting in January 2021. The centre, which will also focus on developing public legal education materials, replaces PBSC’s Family Law Project, which ended in March 2020 due to funding cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). However, LAO is funding the employment of eight part-time law students to administer the FJC. The centre’s founding partner is Toronto-based Epstein Cole LLP, the country’s largest family law firm.

The Family Justice Centre will offer free services for all Ontario residents who qualify, and income eligibility cutoffs will be above legal aid limits, said Rotenberg. Students will be supervised by pro bono private bar lawyers. Clients will sign a limited scope retainer to specifically detail the services being offered.

Other presenters included Kingston family lawyer Jacques Ménard, who introduced attendees to the Kingston Military Family Resource Centre, Owen Sound, Ont., family lawyer Jane Robertson, Fara Wali, the lead and legal content developer for Community Legal Education Ontario’s (CLEO) Steps to Justice website, and Lisa Bernstein of Legal Aid Ontario.

The Law Society of Ontario’s Family Law Action Plan was approved in 2017 in response to 21 recommendations contained in its Family Legal Services Review. As part of the plan, the LSO is accepting comments until Nov. 30 on a proposed model for a family legal services provider licence.

The fifth annual Access to Justice Week (A2J Week), which ends Oct. 30, was organized by the Toronto-based Action Group on Access to Justice and was funded by the Law Society of Ontario and The Law Foundation of Ontario.

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