A family in crisis finds little support in our justice system. It is too cumbersome and too expensive. Recent statistics reveal that of the proceedings in BC under the Family Law Act, 57% of parties are self-represented litigants. Women in particular are victims of our system.
This is not new. In 1992, the Law Society of British Columbia produced a groundbreaking report, “Gender Equality in the Justice System.” It stated in part:
[W]e found the most serious problem facing the justice system is the lack of equal access for poor women, many of whom are single parents with custody of their children. These women see two different justice systems: one for those with sufficient economic resources to hire competent legal counsel, and another for those who do not. Even for those women who have resources to employ legal counsel, the results of litigation are commonly disappointing. For aboriginal women, lesbians, and women of colour, there are also racial, homophobic, as well as poverty barriers to achieving equal access to justice.
In 2008, the Law Society of British Columbia developed a policy framework to approach unbundled legal services (the 2008 report of the Unbundled Legal Services Task Force). It allows lawyers to provide advice on aspects of a matter. The importance of this to families in our justice system cannot be overstated. It can, if promoted properly and effectively, have a fundamental impact on access to justice.
The fact is, however, very few lawyers offer unbundled services to families. There is a particular gap in unbundled services to support families who choose to use mediation to resolve their family disputes. Given that the Family Law Act strongly encourages families to use “out of court” methods, more legal support is needed.
Beginning in January of this year, Mediate BC, supported by the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, embarked upon The Family Legal Services Unbundling Project. Its aim will be to encourage more family lawyers to offer unbundled legal services to support families using mediation. It will find out more about how some lawyers (particularly in the U.S.) are using unbundling successfully (and build on those experiences), and explore whatever concerns and barriers are inhibiting BC family lawyers from offering these services. It will, as well, develop strategies to alleviate those concerns. It will focus on developing various business models for lawyers. The notion of unbundled services must be both affordable for families and sustainable financially for the lawyers involved.
The Law Society, and in particular, the Access to Legal Services Advisory Committee, support this critical project and look forward to assisting these efforts, and I encourage our members to engage in this very important issue.