The commitment to include paralegals is a response to a report from former Ontario court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo. Significantly, the report noted that 57% of Ontarians did not have legal representation in family law matters. This statistic should be shocking, but anyone who has paid limited attention to the world of family law should not be surprised. Many people cannot afford a lawyer. This means they often have little to no help in navigating a complicated and difficult legal system that aims to help parties make decisions post-separation.
Just before 2017 ended, the Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) voted on a commitment to provide new licensing and training opportunities for paralegals. Such specialization could allow paralegals to enter the family court environment – something once previously withheld from them. The hope is that it becomes possible for parties who are unable to afford a lawyer to hire a paralegal. A cheaper option is a more accessible option.
Not everyone believes this specialized licensing is the best course of action. In addition to the Family Law Association, judges at the Jarvis St. courthouse in Toronto, all of which are family law judges, have also stood in opposition to this possibility prior to the commitment by the LSO. They voiced concerns about including paralegals in family law matters, specifically regarding matters involving child custody and access issues. These apprehensions are understandable: family law cases are incredibly intimate, often emotionally charged, and can alter the course of peoples’ lives. The importance of quality decision-making is evident in the hesitations expressed by those working within the family law system.
Herein lies the tension within the longstanding debate involving paralegals and their inclusion in family law court: parties need to have access to quality representation. The problem is that people are uncertain on how to achieve both accessible and quality legal counsel, with arguments often favouring one value over the other. Proponents of inclusion for paralegals argue that a lower cost to parties can help with accessibility. They balk at the idea that a paralegal lacks the expertise to deal with many of the issues arising in family dissolution matters. Yet those who prefer the status quo of excluding paralegals from touching family law matters are concerned such professionals lack the competency to deal with more complicated matters, and that adding a cheaper option doesn’t sufficiently deal with a larger systemic issue of insufficient legal aid funding. A cheaper option still does not mean everyone can afford that new option. Some will still inevitably slip through the cracks.
What both sides agree on is the significance of family law decisions. These are decisions that alter the course of one’s family dynamics. Who does my child live with? How much money do I owe my former partner? How often can I see my children? Do I owe spousal support? What happens to our family’s home? The answers to those questions reminds those on both sides of this debate that the legal system’s response is an important one to everyday Ontarians.
It is clear family law is in dire need of reform. It is not meeting the needs of over half of those who walk the halls of family court. But how do we move forward? Is the answer to include a cheaper option for legal representation? Or are we better off structuring a more robust legal aid funding system?
Perhaps these options are not mutually exclusive.