The Unrepresented

A serious problem with the Ontario justice system that is overshadowed by the legal aid boycott is the enormous segment of the population that does not qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a lawyer. These are the unrepresented.

To understand the scope of the problem, one must appreciate that only those who earn approximately $8,000 a year or less qualify for legal aid.  This is a shocking figure.  Imagine a single mother with two children earning $16,000 who is embroiled in a bitter custody battle with a physically abusive dead-beat ex.  In Ontario, she must pay her own legal bills while supporting herself and her family.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail highlights the efforts by Bay Street heavy-weight Heenan Blaikie to help the unrepresented in high risk communities in Toronto.  Qualified candidates receive legal advice free of charge, the cutoff income for a family of four is $75,000 and associates can count their pro bono work as billable hours. This is generous and very commendable. Unfortunately this firm doesn’t have any family or criminal law lawyers, and this is where the need is most accute.  None the less, Heenan Blaikie deserves high praise.

I doubt very much that a concerted effort to encourage pro bono work would be sufficient to alleviate the problem. Something larger needs to be done.  Various members of the legal community are pushing for reforms, however a broader public awareness of the problem would definitely help to generate the political will necessary to bring about change.

About the Author

John Magyar
John J. Magyar, B.A., J.D., Graduate student, University of Western Faculty of Law. John received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario in 1990 and completed the Recorded Music Production program at Fanshawe College in 1993. Before returning to UWO to study Law, he held a wide variety of jobs including Operations Manager at Other Peoples Music Inc and Research Director at Technical Economists Ltd., a commercial real estate consulting service in downtown Toronto. He received a J.D. from UWO in 2010 and is currently working on an LL.M. thesis on statutory interpretation.

5 Comments on "The Unrepresented"

  1. JamesHalifax | January 13, 2010 at 8:19 am |

    and by “broader public awareness” you no doubt mean;

    “Soak the taxpayers for more money”

  2. John Magyar | January 14, 2010 at 6:31 pm |

    It is true that any type of reform would have a cost associated with it, at least initially. However, taxes pay for the court, the judge and all of the support staff. Needless and/or poorly executed litigation imposes significant costs on the taxpayer and unrepresented litigants are a significant cause of it. This is not a simple matter. There is a price to be paid for not resolving the problem.

  3. E. Bardowell | January 14, 2010 at 8:25 pm |

    Each law school should implement a program for third year student to work in the disadvantage communities to help with discovery work in family and criminal law. This project would assist the lawyers who are do legal aid or pro bono work. Also, this would help the law students gain valuable work experience and enhance their ability to do quality legal case research. This can be done in a non-profit community program where the clients would go for advise and counciling on their pending cases. If every law school in Ontario implement this program and make it manditory for all third year law student, the poor would at least have some legal representative. It will not take away billing hours from the lawyers. It would improve the quality of legal representative for many poor clients in disadvantage communities.

  4. Justice Brownstone has made similar suggestions in his talk at UWO Law:

  5. Getting third years to help out unrepresented litigants isn’t bad but its not even close to a panacea (not that I agree with ‘forcing’ people to do it either but I’ll put that aside). In fact its at best a band-aid solution. I know law students think they know a lot about the law(I know I did) and they are no doubt better than nothing, but the reality is that nothing compares with real experience under supervision from an experienced lawyer that you get by being an articling student/junior associate. Until you’ve had that experience I don’t think you can really be a substitute for a lawyer. In terms of my own legal education the skills and knowledge I acquired in articling and summering dwarfed what I learned in law school. Law school left me woefully unprepared for the real world.

    I honestly don’t know what the answer is the the problem of a lack of representation. I see why the public is resistant to coughing up more money for lawyers, and a heck of a lot of lawyers would rather eat sawdust than be forced to practice criminal or family. I’ve been wondering if we couldn’t move to some sort of optional quasi-inquisitorial type system for family law parties. Two people could go in front of a specially trained judge and s/he asks questions and sorts things out for them. Is it perfect? No but it HAS to be better than just throwing two uneducated, less than wealthy individuals into a self driven fist fight in superior court.

    Family law is the worst situation out there and I quit it (with limited exceptions) within months of being called. Its a mess quite frankly… and I come from a jurisdiction where legal aid qualifications are fairly generous. In my short time doing it I heard enough heart wrenching stories for a life time. There is massive demand and people just can’t afford it. They may be able to come up with an initial retainer but after that….

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