I’m reserving judgment on the Superior Court’s latest access-to-justice program.
Advice and Settlement Counsel Toronto (ASCT) – a joint initiative by the Toronto Superior Court of Justice’s Family Law Bench and bar committee and the Family Law Limited Scope Services Project – sees two private lawyers on site at the court’s 393 University Ave. location, providing legal help to self-represented parties at a rate of $200 per hour.
Since Jan. 14, lawyers with the program have attended motions on Tuesdays and court conferences on Fridays, providing summary advice and assistance on family matters of all kinds, including negotiation of consents and representation in court.
There’s no question that the family law system has a problem with access to justice: well over half of all family matters in Ontario involve at least one unrepresented party.
That status quo is such a mess that anything has to be worth a try, but it remains to be seen how well ASCT will work in improving the situation. I’m cautiously optimistic, but not exactly convinced that it will be a success.
While the $200-per-hour rate represents good value compared with a family lawyer working on a full retainer, the pilot project’s limited-scope assistance sounds quite similar to existing services available in court from duty counsel, funded by Legal Aid Ontario at no cost to clients. And my gut tells me that people presented with a choice between the two are going to pick the free one.
If all the ASCT results in is a relieving of pressure on duty counsel – whose overloaded schedule is not always conducive to good quality, tailored service – that will be a positive outcome. But to make a significant impact, the project’s lawyers are going to have to differentiate themselves from their no-charge counterparts.
The problem is that there’s only so much a lawyer can do within an hour or two, especially when you don’t know much about the case and what’s gone on before then.
I would also note that self-represented parties who are open to paying some money for legal help have other options. They can try the Law Society of Ontario’s referral service, where legal professionals offer free 30-minute consultations, or JusticeNet, a not-for-profit service connecting lawyers who are prepared to offer reduced rates with clients on lower incomes.
At $200 per hour, you’re getting into the cost of new calls and junior associates, so I think it might be more effective if the pilot program lawyers were charging $100 per hour. But overall, I think it’s a good idea, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will work.