Paralegals in family law

Legal Report \ Family Law

|Written By Michael McKiernan   

Paralegals are poised to have more of a role in family law disputes despite resistance from the bar.

For Marshall Yarmus, the end of a decade-long journey is finally in sight.

The former vice president of the Paralegal Society of Ontario says the Law Society of Ontario let down the public when it took on responsibility for regulating paralegals in the province only to ban them from practising in the area of family law.

Unsatisfied by the lack of progress on the issue, he instigated public campaigns urging the regulator to complete the job it started in 2007. In 2010 and 2013, Yarmus transformed the traditionally sleepy annual general meeting of the LSO into essential viewing events for the profession as part of a team tabling motions to expand the scope of paralegal practice to include family law.

Both motions were ultimately withdrawn at short notice in exchange for assurances of further study, but it wasn’t until December 2017 that Yarmus felt his efforts were finally vindicated. That was when benchers of the LSO committed to the creation a special licence for paralegals to offer limited services in family law, including process navigation, form completion and uncontested divorces.

In addition, the regulator’s governing body endorsed a plan to study what other services should come under a further expanded licence, including the possibility of courtroom advocacy by paralegals, as part of its response to the Family Legal Services Review by former Ontario Court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo.

“One of the reasons I started this campaign was because I kept getting calls from litigants looking for services at a lower price, so I’m excited that we’re finally going to get access to justice for people with family law problems who can’t afford a lawyer,” says Yarmus, who runs Toronto-based Civil Litigations Paralegal Services.

“This time it’s actually going to happen. The law society and the attorney general are determined to implement this, and people will at last have a choice of legal service provider,” he adds.

Although he hasn’t yet decided whether to personally train up in family law once the new licence is available, Yarmus says he supports the move to mandate extra requirements before paralegals can begin practising in the area.

“Education is very important. We don’t want anyone who’s unqualified to be doing it,” he says.

But as paralegals inch toward regulated family law practice, a group of familiar foes stands in their way: the family law bar. Many lawyers in the area argue that anything short of a law degree is inadequate preparation for the complexities of family law.

Orillia, Ont. lawyer Fay McFarlane says the law society is making a mistake by giving paralegals an entryway to family law.

“It may be disastrous. Even us, as family law practitioners, have issues sometimes dealing with clients and their emotions,” she says. “I don’t think paralegals can handle it.

“If they had the training that lawyers have, maybe they could, but that’s why we’re lawyers,” McFarlane adds.

“Family law is complicated enough, but I don’t know how you can solve the problems associated with that by lowering the standards for people to be able to practise,” says David Harris-Lowe, president of the Simcoe County Law Association and partner at Barrie, Ont. firm Barriston Resolution Services.

He says the LSO proposal won’t directly affect him because his family law clients are unlikely to consider hiring paralegals even if they had the option.

“I recognize that there is an element of self-interest, at least to some lawyers,” Harris-Lowe says. “But when I hear that judges are saying this is a problem, that’s more concerning to me, because they don’t have that self-interest. Their interest is in having cases resolved fairly and expeditiously in the court system.”

Members of Ontario’s family law bench upped the volume of their objections after Bonkalo’s March 2017 report recommended paralegals be allowed to provide legal services, without supervision by lawyers, in the areas of custody, access, simple child support cases, restraining orders, enforcement and simple divorces without property.

A program of lawyer supervision would have no impact on the access to justice crisis in family law, she wrote, adding that “only licensed and independent paralegals can offer meaningful competition to lawyers.”

Despite initially favouring a blanket ban on courtroom appearances by paralegals in family law matters, Bonkalo explained that her mind changed during the consultation process.

“As I continued to explore the issues and hear from different communities, it became clear to me that precluding paralegals from appearing in court would be a disservice to clients,” she wrote, noting that demand for help among unrepresented family law litigants peaks when they are called to appear in court.

Provincial Court Justice Marion Cohen voiced her concerns with Bonkalo’s conclusions to the Toronto Star, warning that “paralegals will squeeze the lawyers out and the quality of justice in the Ontario Court of Justice will suffer” if they are implemented.

In his submission to the LSO, Justice George Czutrin, a senior judge of the Superior Court’s family branch, said it was “unfortunate” that Bonkalo’s report gave so little weight to the concerns “experienced [by] family justice participants,” adding that allowing paralegals to provide family law advice was not the answer to challenges in the system.

“In fact, it is much more likely to cause its own set of problems without adding real value,” Czutrin wrote.

Kavita Bhagat, a family lawyer in Brampton, Ont., says any attempt to hive off parts of family law as acceptable for paralegals to practise is doomed to failure because of the dynamic nature of disputes. In any case, she says, Bonkalo’s report put too little emphasis on alternative methods of dispute resolution.

“Paralegals are attractive to the attorney general because it’s a very easy solution to propose,” she says. “But it’s also a Band-Aid solution that ignores the real problems of family law.”

At the law society, Howard Goldblatt, chairman of its access to justice committee, won’t be tied down to any deadline for implementing the new paralegal licence or reporting back on its possible future expansion. But the process will give paralegal critics another chance to make their case.

“We want to ensure that those who have views and voices are heard,” he says. “Ultimately, the law society’s job is to regulate in the public interest, and that is what will prevail, as opposed to any stakeholders on either side of the debate.”

Julie Macfarlane, a law professor at the University of Windsor and director of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, says Ontarians are lining up to use paralegals in family law. She’s frustrated both by the glacial pace of developments and the arguments of family lawyers, which she calls “elitist.”

“There has been a lot of bad talk about paralegals, which I think is unfair. It seems disingenuous to suggest that nobody but lawyers can do this work,” Macfarlane says.

Still, she’s puzzled by the vociferousness of the bench’s opposition to Bonkalo’s recommendations.

“I would have thought that it would be better for them to have someone representing a party than nobody,” Macfarlane says.

“The underlying problem is the culture that says lawyers have to have their hands around everything. There’s a tremendous resistance to loosening the grip,” she adds.

Even in jurisdictions that have embraced family law paralegals more openly, Macfarlane says, there is evidence of lawyers and law societies inhibiting their progress.

For example, the Law Society of B.C. allows designated paralegals to offer family law services under the supervision of a lawyer. However, the law society was forced to abandon a pilot project allowing paralegals into the courtroom when only three lawyers took advantage of the rule by sending paralegals under their supervision before a judge over a two-year period, producing insufficient data for assessment.

Michele Ross, a designated paralegal at Quay Law Centre in New Westminster in B.C. who was one of the few paralegals to make it into court as part of the project, says it was a missed opportunity.

“Some lawyers would benefit from some education about what we can do and how we can help clients save money,” she says.

Macfarlane says there are Ontario family lawyers who support a bigger role for paralegals, but she worries they feel forced into silence because of the overwhelming consensus against them.

In Vancouver, Leisha Murphy, partner at Connect Family Law, feels no such pressure. She says her firm’s designated paralegals are well equipped to deal with many aspects of clients’ cases and would love to see the law society offering them more independence in practice.

“I prefer to go to the higher-level aspects, like the strategic direction of the file,” she says. “We need to loosen the reins. With so many people unrepresented, it’s inevitable in the long run anyway, and we as lawyers need to adjust to that reality.”

http://www.canadianlawyermag.com/author/michael-mckiernan/paralegals-in-family-law-15386/

GUEST COLUMN: Paralegals in family court

BY MARSHALL YARMUS, SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It only took seven years of fighting with the Law Society of Upper Canada to get it to take the first steps towards allowing paralegals to offer some family law services.

The Law Society is the regulator of lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.
It is required to regulate in the public interest and to facilitate access to justice.

Most people wouldn’t pick a fight with their regulator; an organization that has the ability to suspend or revoke their licence.

I am not like most people.

On Dec. 1, 2017, the Law Society’s board of directors approved an action plan which included developing a specialized licence for paralegals with appropriate training to offer some family law services.

This licence will support training in such areas as navigating the court process, form completion, investigating forms, motions to change, uncontested divorces and possibly other areas outside the courtroom context.

At the same time, the Law Society will assess what additional family law services paralegals can offer, including advocacy inside the courtroom, and consider how to develop a further expanded licence.

What led to this announcement?

I and other paralegals were receiving calls from people who had family law disputes, but did not have the money to hire a lawyer.
In 2010, I scheduled a motion to be heard at the Law Society’s annual general meeting.

It asked the Law Society to study the barriers to allowing paralegals to offer some family law services.

I debated family law lawyers on this issue on radio and television.

Ultimately, the motion was withdrawn prior to being heard based on a commitment to study the issue.

In February, 2011 the elected leader of the Law Society announced she would undertake a study to determine if paralegals should be allowed to do family law work.

Only one report was released before the initiative was abandoned.

In 2013, I again led a group of paralegals who scheduled a motion to be heard at the Law Society’s annual general meeting.

Hundreds of lawyers showed up to oppose this non-binding vote, only to find the motion had been withdrawn hours earlier.

Since 2013, I have written a number of newspapers articles criticizing the Law Society for failing to address this issue.

Some family lawyers argued family law was too complicated for paralegals to handle.

They said paralegals could handle small claims court, landlord and tenant board and provincial offences cases, and represent people in other courts and tribunals, but not family law where the stakes were too high.

In 2016, the Attorney General and the Law Society appointed Justice Annemarie Bonkalo to study the issue and write a report.

Justice Bonkolo made 31 recommendations to improve the family court system, including having paralegals with a special licence being allowed to prepare forms and do some family court advocacy work.

Following Justice Bonkalo’s report the Law Society and the Attorney General began to develop an action plan.

The Dec. 1, 2017 approval of this action plan marked the beginning of the path towards the public having an option of legal providers for family law matters.

It will take time to develop the curriculum and train paralegals in family law.

However, I am proud to have been one of the main motivators for the Law Society to address this lack of access to justice issue.

Yarmus is a licensed Toronto paralegal at the firm Civil Litigations.

GUEST COLUMN: Paralegals in family court

Published in the Toronto Sun January 6, 2018

North York paralegal ‘excited’ services could expand to include family law

A North York based paralegal is ‘excited’ that his seven-year fight to have his profession be allowed to offer some family law services to clients is one step closer to fruition.

The Law Society of Ontario, which regulates lawyers and paralegals, voted last month to commit to develop a special license which would support training for paralegals in dealing with some family law services.
“I’m excited,” said Marshall Yarmus of Civil Litigations Paralegal Services. “Finally – it’s been seven years working at this.”

The special licence will support training in navigating the court process, form completion, investigating forms such as financial, motions to change, and uncontested divorces, and possibly other areas outside the courtroom, he said.

“(Family law) is the one area I get the most phone calls about,” said Yarmus, a paralegal for the past 21 years who currently works near Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue. “People can’t afford lawyers or can’t afford to keep lawyers on their case.”

The Dec. 1 decision followed a report from the former chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, who was tasked by the law society and the Attorney General to consider whether a broader range of service providers could deliver certain family legal services.

The report prepared by Justice Annemarie Bonkalo noted 21 recommendations, including a special licence to allow paralegals to provide certain types of family legal services such as custody and simple divorces without property.

In 2014 to 2015, more than 57 per cent of Ontarians did not have legal representation in family court, according to the Law Society of Ontario.

Currently, paralegals can act in small claims court, on non-criminal provincial offences, in criminal matters where the maximum penalty doesn’t exceed six months in prison and/or a $5,000 fine, and before administrative tribunals.

Details remain vague and a timeline has not been set, but Yarmus estimates it will be a “couple years” before paralegals are allowed in family court, adding he’s in favour of specialized licenses.

“If we can pass the special test, then we should be allowed (to deal with family law),” he said.

by Fannie Sunshine
Fannie Sunshine is a reporter for Metroland Media Toronto

https://www.insidetoronto.com/community-story/8038272-north-york-paralegal-excited-services-could-expand-to-include-family-law

Published in the North York Mirror January 16, 2018

Guest Contributor: Should paralegals be allowed to practice in family court?

If you are involved in a family court case in Ontario and cannot afford a lawyer, should you have the option of hiring a paralegal? Justice Annemarie Bonkalo was tasked by the attorney general and the Law Society of Upper Canada to study this issue and write a report.

The Family Legal Services Review report was recently released. It makes a number of recommendations to improve access to justice in family court. The most controversial of the recommendations was that licensed paralegals in Ontario should be able to obtain a specialized licence to be permitted to represent in family court on certain matters.

There are currently over 8,000 paralegals in Ontario licensed by the law society. Most work independent of lawyers. These are the people you call to fight traffic tickets, as well as to represent you in small claims court, at the landlord and tenant board, in criminal court for certain offences and at other tribunals.

The report states that 57 per cent of people go unrepresented in family court as they cannot afford a lawyer. Yet, they make more than the poverty wages required to qualify for legal aid.

The response to this report by some lawyer organizations and even some judges was predictable. They would have you believe that family law is too complicated for paralegals. Paralegals don’t have the education necessary to represent in court. Paralegals should be supervised by lawyers.

First and foremost, paralegals and the judge who wrote the report just want the people of Ontario to have access to justice. This issue is too important to you for there to be a turf war between lawyers and paralegals.

Paralegals currently provide services in many courts and tribunals. We deal with complex laws and their interpretation every day. Family law would be just one more area to learn and apply the laws.

The lawyer groups are correct that paralegals do not have the education today to work in family court. Courses still need to be developed. Stringent specialized licensing tests still need to be prepared. The lawyers who are specialists in the field should be involved in making sure that the course materials set a high bar for paralegals who want to practise family law. We want to provide you affordable access to justice, but not for the sake of a low quality education.

There are places in Canada and the United States where paralegals operate only under the supervision of lawyers. That has never been the model in Ontario. Paralegals have operated independent of lawyers for decades. They have been regulated and licensed since 2008.

The benefit to the consumer of a paralegal working independent of a lawyer is that the consumer does not receive a lawyer’s hefty bill for work done by a paralegal. It would defeat the intended increased access to justice if paralegals were required to work on family law matters under the supervision of a lawyer. New lawyers are permitted to appear in family court without the supervision of a senior lawyer.

The Ministry of the Attorney General and the law society are developing an action plan as a result of the Family Legal Services report. The action plan will be released by the fall of 2017. You are invited to send feedback based on Justice Bonkalo’s report no later than May 15 to commentsflsr@lsuc.on.ca 

 

Published March 30, 2017  Copied from Windsor Star

Guest Contributor: Should paralegals be allowed to practise in family court?