Lawyers, clients give thumbs up in first study of satisfaction with unbundled services

Lawyers, clients give thumbs up in first study of satisfaction with unbundled services
John-Paul Boyd calls the results of the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project 'outstanding.'

A report on Canada’s first empirical study of lawyers’ and clients’ satisfaction with unbundled legal services and the impact on clients’ ability to access justice has shown high rates of satisfaction with the services provided, as well as their speed and cost.

The final report of the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project, under the auspices of the Calgary-based Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, was released yesterday. Survey results showed that: clients participating in the project expressed themselves as happy to have a lawyer handle just part of their matter; most services provided were completed in less than 11 days at a cost of less than $1,000; almost all lawyers participating in the project said they would continue providing unbundled services in the future.

This project, launched in April 2017, involved 60 lawyers providing unbundled legal services to clients throughout Alberta in almost every area of the law. It was funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund and by the Law Foundation of Alberta.

Almost all lawyers and clients surveyed were satisfied in the giving or receiving of unbundled legal services, and most clients said they would hire a lawyer again on an unbundled basis, says John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the institute.

Additionally, he says, a group of lawyers from the project roster have expressed interest in carrying both the roster and the website forward, now that the project is over, to give a permanent home to Alberta lawyers wishing to provide unbundled legal services and to Alberta clients wishing to access them. A steering committee has already been formed.

“The results were positive all around,” says Boyd.

Lawyers have had “a certain amount of trepidation” in providing unbundled services, Boyd says, fearing a greater liability risk or that they won’t be perceived as “a real lawyer,” among other things. But law societies are taking steps to improve access to justice through unbundled services, including them in their codes of conduct, he notes. Unbundled services have been backed by at least three senior judges in B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia, who in 2016 appeared in a video to promote the database of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, which features more than 100 lawyers across the country who offer unbundled services.

The primary goal of the project was “to first test the hypothesis that had been put forth in all of the access-to-justice reports put out over the years,” Boyd says, namely that unbundled legal services can improve access to justice for self-represented litigants and other clients — including by reducing cost —  and can work well for lawyers, too.

Nearly 90 per cent of client respondents in the survey said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied" with the legal services provided during the course of the project. Two-fifths of clients reported that the services they received resolved their legal problem; half reported that further steps were required to resolve the problem; and less than 10 per cent said that they did not know whether the services received had resolved their problem.

Of the clients in the latter two groups, more than four-fifths said the services they received improved their ability to resolve their legal problem and more than three-quarters said the services improved their confidence in their ability to resolve their legal problem. Nearly all said that the services received improved their understanding of the law that applied to their legal problem, and almost three-quarters said the services improved their chances of obtaining a good resolution to their legal problem.

Boyd is a family law lawyer who has volunteered in community legal clinics. “One of the things I hope is that the client doesn’t just get [legal] help,” he says, but that that help “has a spillover effect of better understanding of the legal system — that their legal literacy is improved.”

One interesting finding from the survey, “from a lawyers’ business point of view,” Boyd says, was that roughly half the lawyers in the study charged clients flat rates for services provided, even in family law, which, he says, “is notoriously difficult” and so a practice area for which lawyers might prefer charging by the hour.

The other goal of the study was to provide collateral benefits beyond access to justice, Boyd says, “among them to train as many lawyers as we could in Alberta to provide unbundled legal services, to normalize” those services and to maintain a roster of lawyers to provide those services in Alberta. That has also been successful, as roughly half of the lawyer respondents to the survey said they would be willing to continue on the roster, and within those a group stepped forward to continue the work of the project by forming a non-profit society.

With the release this week of the final report of the Alberta Limited Legal Services Project and two others (a report on the Early Intervention Case Conference project of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and another on the attitudes of judges of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench on children’s participation in justice processes), the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family will cease to exist as of tomorrow, says Boyd, who has been its executive director for the past five years.

“We have existed since 1987 and have contributed some of the most important research available in Canada on the impact of the law on the family,” he notes, including some of the research that laid the foundation for child-support guidelines in the amendments to the Divorce Act, as well as on children’s participation in justice processes. The Institute was an independent organization affiliated with the University of Calgary.

“It has been an enriching and rewarding several years,” Boyd concludes.

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