Strength in numbers
by Timothy E. McGee
One of the Law Society’s strategic priorities for 2010 is the work of the Delivery of Legal Services Task Force, chaired by Art Vertlieb, QC. The Task Force will recommend to the Benchers later this year how the Law Society as regulator of the profession can better connect those who need affordable legal services with those who are ready, willing and able to provide it. Today there is a troubling gap in the supply and demand for those services. The Benchers have directed that the Law Society respond to this challenge as part of its mandate to govern the profession in the public interest.
The work of the Delivery of Legal Services Task Force is well underway. The first phase was completed over the past year and involved the gathering of detailed information and data on the extent and nature of the supply/demand gap for affordable legal services here in BC. Ipsos Reid assembled the data so that the Task Force could work with empirical rather than anecdotal information. The second phase of the Task Force work is focusing on defining the areas of greatest need and developing a short list of practical options for consideration by the Benchers later this year.
This challenge is being pursued as a priority for law regulators, associations and governments across Canada and around the world. The issues are multi-faceted and involve different stakeholders within the profession and the justice system. For example, governments are being challenged to properly sustain publicly funded legal aid systems; law regulators are looking at how non-lawyers, such as paralegals and community advocates, can provide legal services while maintaining appropriate regulatory oversight; and the courts are faced with a growing trend of unrepresented litigants and questions of appropriate rights of audience.
It is clear that because of this stakeholder diversity there is no one organization, no one body, and no one authority in any jurisdiction, at home or abroad, that can definitively respond to the slate of issues. In short, there is no silver bullet solution. But from my perspective, we will be well served if we keep two things in mind. First, if each organization focuses on what is within their purview of authority and pursues practical solutions, even if only a partial solution to the overall problem, then there will be progress. Every little bit helps. Second, there is strength in numbers. Because every major law society in Canada, the UK, Australia, and large numbers in the United States are addressing this issue, we will all benefit from the power of diverse, creative thinking and problem-solving. We are already seeing this in Canada. For example, the Law Society of Manitoba is addressing the affordability issue in family law matters by brokering discounted legal services for those most in need. Whether this innovative approach would be attractive in other jurisdictions remains to be seen, but the benefit is already received because the idea has been developed and is being tested and the results will be available for all to assess for themselves. I am confident that the Law Society of BC’s Delivery of Legal Services Task Force will provide ideas and solutions, not only for British Columbia, but worthy of consideration by others.
At the Federation of Law Societies of Canada semi-annual conference in Toronto this month, all Canadian regulators will come together and share their ideas and experiences in a segment entitled “If You Build It They Will Come: Practical solutions to improve access to legal services.” The outcome of this meeting will be a positive step in addressing one of the most important issues facing law regulators and the profession today. Because of that I take comfort that indeed there is strength in numbers.