Access to justice project in Alberta funded by Law Foundation of Ontario

A group of lawyers has launched the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project, an initiative to provide a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to access to justice — empirical research to test whether self-represented litigants actually benefit from unbundled services.

The idea that limited scope work could improve access to legal help has been cited by many reports on access to justice, but no one has ever conducted any empirical research to test the idea, says
John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family in Calgary.

“This project will test the hypothesis that providing litigants with some legal information is better than none and test clients’ and lawyers’ satisfaction,” says Boyd. “It’s the first empirical study in Canada — if not elsewhere — to look at satisfaction.”

The website has information for clients and lawyers, as well as a page of lawyers from various practice areas who offer limited scope service.

“The site will be shared with judges, clerks and other justice constituents to help direct people who seek more limited legal assistance in lieu of a full retainer,” says Robert Harvie, partner at Huckvale LLP in Lethbridge, Alta.

Harvie, who also helped develop the project, has been doing family law for 31 years. The more he looked into access to justice he saw a huge market not being tapped. He says a lot of change in the area of access is based on “anecdotal and guess work.” One of the ways to improve access is by actually engaging in studies while expanding the delivery of limited scope work to see if it’s working, he explains.

“Part of the problem is not just that limited scope options are not there, but we don’t understand it very well,” he says. “We looked at the American experience, and there was some good material, but no studies. How does it work for clients? For lawyers?”

It’s an odd thing, he says, because most lawyers have been offering limited scope services forever and just don’t know it — such as contracts — but they never marketed it as a key part of their delivery process.

“It’s been around for a long time but as a significant delivery tool it’s still relatively in its infancy,” Harvie says. “We’re hoping the project will give us some good insight — it all helps.”

Harvie and Boyd expect to have sufficient data to put together a report in about 18 months, wrapping up in the fall of 2018.

He notes they have no pre-conceived notion and don’t necessarily expect it’s going to “change things dramatically.” Maybe lawyers don’t like it, or clients find it hard to digest — they don’t know for sure, but the point is they’ll have a lot better data than when they started out, he says.

Boyd says the intention is to have the roster of lawyers complete very short surveys at the end of each trial and a longer survey retroactively at the end of the project. Clients will be asked to fill out a survey at the end of their matter as well.

“To have legs it has to work for clients and lawyers,” Harvie says. “Pro bono is great but there’s only so much free work lawyers can do. Limited scope offers a way for lawyers to get reasonable compensation while offering services in a way that’s more accessible.”

He says it’s been a very interesting road that brought the project to fruition, with an Alberta project unique in Canada being funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, from a cy’pres fund targeted for having a national benefit.

“Alberta is engaged in a review of family justice but — and maybe it’s an economic issue — we haven’t seen a lot of innovation in Alberta in the last decade,” Harvie says. “I think that made it less likely we were going to get funding in Alberta and more likely we were going to get funding from another jurisdiction.”

“It’s gratifying to see two provinces, almost accidentally I suppose, working together with a shared aim of trying to examine limited scope work and expanded delivery,” Harvie says.

Boyd says the hope is that the project will “materially increase the number of lawyers aware of limited scope” and he notes 60 lawyers signed up across Alberta, a number he calls remarkable.

Though Boyd estimates 40 per cent of the lawyers listed on the website do family law as some or all of their practice, he says it’s “all across” the profession, with many doing wills and estates or corporate commercial services in an unbundled way as well.

“We are pushing for family law because it’s the area of the most tangible need — nowhere are you going to find more depressing stats than family courts,” he says. “It’s the critical burning area needing to get addressed.”

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