The Law Society of Manitoba has approved a pilot project to make lawyers financially accessible to people who often fall between the cracks of the legal system -- the middle class.
The province's poor can access Legal Aid Manitoba when they need a lawyer and the affluent can simply write a cheque, but it's those in between who are often unable to afford legal services, which start at more than $100 per hour.
Allan Fineblit, the Law Society's chief executive officer, said it will act as the brokerage for legal services for the Family Law Access Centre (FLAC), a first of its kind in Canada. It will go to the private bar of lawyers throughout the province and buy legal services at a discount -- approximately two-thirds of what lawyers usually charge -- and make them available to the public for family law cases, such as divorce, child custody and spousal support. The Law Society will also handle the billing side of things.
"In a contested family domestic type case, it can be very expensive. Even people who make a decent living can have trouble affording the legal services they need," he said, noting FLAC should be up and running early in the new year.
"The courts struggle with this. When people show up and try to represent themselves, it becomes a nightmare. Courts want them to be treated fairly but they're at a huge disadvantage without a lawyer. And at stake could be the most important thing in the world to them, the custody of their children."
Fineblit said it's often the most vulnerable people who aren't able to pay for legal services and end up representing themselves, such as those for whom English is a second (or third) language, recent immigrants who have no sense of Canada's legal system or those with little education.
Jennifer Cooper, a partner and family law lawyer at Deeley Fabbri Sellen in Winnipeg, said the number of people representing themselves is on the rise across both in Manitoba and across Canada.
"It's like sending you into a hospital and asking you to do your own surgery. You want somebody taking out your appendix who has done it before," she said.
Chief Justice Monnin said there has been a growing trend, primarily in family law, of people representing themselves in court. That can put them at a distinct disadvantage, he said.
"If a party doesn't fully appreciate what obligations they have to present material or evidence to the court, then that makes the job that much more difficult for the judge," he said.
Self-representing litigants who don't know court procedures might also have to seek adjournments more often than normal, which can cause cases to take longer than usual, he said.
Bill Gange, a partner at Gange Goodman & French, applauded the Law Society for tackling an issue that nobody else is dealing with.
"If you're a corporation that has a budget for legal matters, it might not be all that important to you. But to the average joe on the street, paying $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 to get matters resolved, that's a hard hit," he said.
Fineblit said applicants will be subject to a full financial assessment, including an evaluation of their income, debts, assets, tax returns, family size and number of dependents. If they fall in the proper range, they'll be asked to choose from the stable of lawyers.
Fineblit said the system should benefit both clients and their lawyers as clients will pay what they can afford while lawyers can rely on the Law Society to collect their fees and rest assured that they're going to be paid.
Fineblit said the Law Society has set aside $250,000 for the program. He said it's too early to say how many lawyers will sign up or how many cases it will handle.
"When we run out of money, that's when we'll stop. If I can get 100 lawyers signed up, I'll be thrilled," he said.
Cooper said she expects a significant number of lawyers will sign on for FLAC, just as they do for Legal Aid. Last year, Legal Aid Manitoba boosted its rates by 40 per cent from $57 to $80 per hour.
"It's the right thing to do. Most of us want to help clients to access justice," she said.