Paralegals and family court

Scales of Justice, a mural by Jason Luper, photo by Clyde Robinson
Scales of Justice, a mural by Jason Luper, photo by Clyde Robinson / CC BY 2.0

In February 2016, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi and then Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada Janet Minor appointed Justice Annemarie Bonkalo to conduct a review of the provision of family legal services by people other than lawyers.

Ontario family courts, like family courts elsewhere in the country, are dealing with an extremely high rate of unrepresented parties. This has created considerable difficulties for the court system as well as families accessing its services, which has led to discussions about what may be the best way to provide parties with some level of legal support, short of full representation.

By coincidence, this report comes about just as Legal Aid Ontario is grappling with a $26 million deficit, which has led to cuts in services, including the provision of legal aid certificates.

The role of paralegals now

In 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada began licensing paralegals. To become licensed, a person must pass a licensing examination and be of good character. Once licensed, s/he can provide legal services in small claims court, for some immigration matters, in matters before administrative tribunals and in some criminal matters (summary conviction offences and matters under the Provincial Offences Act).

At this time, paralegals are not permitted to provide services in family court; however there has been a steady lobby, especially as the rate of unrepresented parties in family court has increased, to consider this possibility.

Family Legal Services Review Report

Justice Bonkalo’s report, released in February 2017, makes 21 recommendations, including a number about permitting paralegals to provide some legal services in family court.

Despite the fact that cases involving violence against women in the family take up a significant portion of the time of the family court system and present some of the most serious challenges to that system, her report is largely silent on this matter. This is of considerable concern to organizations that assist women who leave abusive relationships and are involved with family court.

Violence against women submission

Luke’s Place and the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, both of which provide legal and other services to women fleeing abuse, have responded to Justice Bonkalo’s report with a submission to the Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada that focuses on the needs of women who have been subjected to abuse.

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