Here at Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers, we are a team of Family Law lawyers who collectively hold decades of in-depth and focused experience. The other end of the spectrum, are the self-represented litigants, who manage their own proceedings on a one-off basis, and appear in court themselves without the help of legal representation.
Practically speaking, there is a wide potential gap between these two, in terms of competent legal representation and access to justice.
Family Legal Service Provider
Perhaps as a middle-ground, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has proposed what might be termed a hybrid: The Family Legal Service Provider (FLSP) licence. It’s a special category of paralegals, who would still be governed by the LSO, but would be entitled to provide a limited range of service specifically in the Family Law realm.
As the thinking goes, this proposed category of FLSP paralegal would improve access to justice – particularly for those members of the community with limited means. Since these paralegals would serve a narrow range of litigants, there would be an enhancement of available quality legal representation for this group. This is especially important in light of the pressures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The creation of this suggested new category of FLSP paralegals is the subject of the LSO’s specific proposal titled “Access to Justice Committee for a Family Legal Services Provider (FLSP) Licence”. Under this initiative, which was put forth in 2020 by the LSO Access to Justice Committee, paralegals who train and qualify to be part of this category would be allowed to represent some Family Law litigants – but only in narrow circumstances involving a narrow range of disputes. It would also see the LSO working with accredited teaching facilities to develop suggested training programs for this special category of paralegal license.
Interestingly, one of the Committee’s other recommendations is that every FLSP must have and maintain a relationship with one or more experienced Family lawyers who can provide consultation – and even take over a case if necessary (e.g. it becomes more complicated or contentious). The relationship between a FLSP and this kind of Family Lawyer could even develop into an ongoing relationship in some cases.
All of this certainly sounds like a good idea. But in its current form, the proposal has attracted some critique from several Family Law experts, such as Queens University Law Professor Nicholas Bala. Mainly, these critics claim that the creation of this limited-range category of paralegals could still enhance to the risk to already-vulnerable Family Law litigants. Paralegals in the proposed FLSP category would remain handcuffed by the narrow services they are eligible to provide; for example, they would be prohibited from acting on any matter that involves more than one family home, or in any matter involving spouses who have significant wealth, pensions, or a business. These FLSP paralegals would be precluded from involvement in cases involving the statutorily-defined concept of “family violence”.
This potentially rules out a lot of cases, and arguably adds little to the justice system as a whole, according to the critics.
Admittedly, Family Law issues are almost always complex. They impact not just the immediate participants (usually spouses or parents), but also the children of a family headed for divorce. This means that it’s not merely the legal issues that have to be capably handled, but also the broader emotional and practical ones. Most Family Law issues are unique to the participants, and cannot be pigeonholed.
Are paralegals poised for this?
This is where some critical evaluation must come in. There’s no disputing that paralegals certainly serve an important role in the broader Canadian justice system. But this does not mean a new category of paralegals is the answer. However well-intentioned, the creation of a new FLSP category of paralegals must be demonstrably impactful, if it is to proceed.
Should paralegals be allowed access to Family Law disputes? What are your thoughts?