Report recommends letting paralegals appear in family court

A report on reforms to the Ontario family law system recommends allowing paralegals to provide more family law services without the supervision of a lawyer.

Former Ontario chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo's report recommends more paralegals in family law

The Ontario government and the Law Society of Upper Canada are considering recommendations to reform who can provide legal representation in family justice proceedings. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

A report on reforms to the Ontario family law system recommends allowing paralegals to provide more family law services without supervision from lawyers.

The province says that in 2014-15 more than 57 per cent of people in family court did not have legal representation.

The report from former Ontario court chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo, released Monday, recommends a special family law licence and training for paralegals among the 21 proposals to help people access the kind of service they need. 

The provincial government and the Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the legal profession, commissioned the report.

Complex, emotional files

Eldon Horner, chair of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations, said the training proposed isn't enough.

"It's a very complex file and we're not convinced that simply having one year of some family law training will equip what could be a 20-year-old individual to provide proper family law advice to people across the province," he told Alan Neal on CBC Radio's All in a Day.

Paralegals would be allowed to handle services including some child custody and access cases, divorces without property and representing clients in court — but not during trial.

"One has to deal with issues of income tax, with estates, with immigration, with mental health issues — not to mention the high level of emotional trauma that people are going through in their family law files."

The Morrisburg, Ont.,-based lawyer appeared on All in a Day on Tuesday with Stephen Parker, president of the Ontario Paralegal Association.

Parker said the recommendations include specific courses for paralegals on the structure of family courts, when they need to refer clients to a lawyer and how to deal with the needs of vulnerable people, such as people who are dealing with domestic violence.

"Even family law courses in law school don't cover that sort of thing, I've been given to understand. So in some sense, the paralegals will have a better education in certain limited areas than even lawyers do," Parker said.

He added he also has concerns about the age of paralegals and the OPA is advocating for requiring a graduate degree before someone can be licensed as a paralegal.

More affordable option

Parker said paralegals will help provide greater access to justice.

"Most people cannot afford a lawyer, some people won't be able to afford a paralegal either. But at least it gives them an option, where their income falls in that no man's land where's it's too much [to qualify] for Legal Aid but not enough to retain a lawyer," he said.

The provincial government and the Law Society is taking public feedback and reviewing the recommendations. 

The report also recommended moving the entire province to the Unified Family Court model, allowing families to resolve all their legal issues with one court.

There are 17 such courts in Ontario already, including in Ottawa. That reform would require cooperation from the federal government.

Horner said adopting the Unified Family Court model will simplify the patchwork of family law systems that exists in different parts of the province.