Family Law... I can't afford a lawyer but I need help! What can I do?

Retaining a lawyer to deal with the totality of your legal matter is not the only way to obtain legal advice or to navigate the legal system with a lawyer’s assistance. You may be surprised to learn that some lawyers or law firms have different options available to clients who have a limited budget.

Danika Beaulieu – December 2019

The legal system is expensive. This is a well-known fact by everyone in society, including legal professionals such as judges and lawyers. In fact, most pieces of literature discussing Access to Justice list cost as the number one reason why people feel the justice system is inaccessible.

To people with no legal background, the legal system is unfamiliar and intimidating. It is complex, it requires very specific language and practices, and a lot of people feel they cannot afford to retain a lawyer to help them navigate their legal matters appropriately. As a result, people either decide not to pursue their legal matter, or choose to represent themselves. An inability to afford legal representation is the main reason why people choose to remain self-represented, and why we see an increasing amount of self-represented parties each year.

If your income is low and you do not own any significant assets, you may be able to qualify for Legal Aid, which would provide you with legal representation at no cost to you. However, if you do not qualify for Legal Aid, you will be responsible to pay your legal fees.

With that being said, retaining a lawyer to deal with the totality of your legal matter is not the only way to obtain legal advice or to navigate the legal system with a lawyer’s assistance. You may be surprised to learn that some lawyers or law firms have different options available to clients who have a limited budget. For example, some lawyers may be willing to accept a Limited Scope Retainer or provide you with some amount of mentorship. These options will be discussed in further detail below.

When you are faced with a legal matter, the first thing you should do is determine if you have the financial ability to retain a lawyer. This means either retaining a lawyer on an ongoing basis, or determining whether you have a specific amount of funds that you are able to spend on legal fees.

When determining whether you have the financial ability to retain a lawyer, you should keep in mind that many different lawyers have different hourly rates. These rates will differ depending on the law firm where the lawyer is employed as well as the lawyer’s level of seniority. Senior lawyers charge more per hour than lawyers who are just starting out in practice. If your matter is fairly complex, it could make sense to retain a senior lawyer because they may be able to handle your issues more quickly and, therefore, more economically. However, if your matter is fairly simple, it could make sense to have a more junior lawyer working for you in order to keep your legal fees to a minimum.  

After careful consideration, if you determine that you do not have the ability to retain a lawyer on an ongoing basis, but you do have a certain amount of funds that you are prepared to spend to obtain legal advice, here are different options that may be available to you in order to help you navigate your legal matter:  

  1. Attend an Initial Consultation: An Initial Consultation can be extremely useful to receive general legal advice on your legal matters, obtain information about the Court process, and determine different options that may be available to you to resolve your matter in the most cost-effective way.

The price range for an Initial Consultation differs depending on the law firm or the particular lawyer you have in mind, if any. Some law firms will offer a 30-minute free consultation, but will use up most of that time obtaining basic information about you and the opposing party and provide only limited basic information about your actual legal matter. At MDW Law, most lawyers charge $250 inclusive of HST for a one-hour Initial Consultation (some senior lawyers charge more). The full hour is used to obtain specific facts that may be important to your case and canvass all aspects of your legal matter. We provide our clients with a Client Information Form that we ask them to complete prior to their Initial Consultation so that we can review it and prepare any relevant calculations, if any (for example, child support calculations or spousal support calculations). This allows us to provide our clients with comprehensive information about their legal matter based on the limited information we have been provided at that time. We also provide our clients with information about various court processes that could help them resolve their matters without the need to attend a stressful and costly hearing.

If a client advises us during the Initial Consultation that they are unable to retain us going forward due to lack of funding, we will also provide them with information about where they may be able to obtain further legal information for free.

  1. Enter into a Limited Scope Retainer: If you want help with a specific legal issue, but wish to remain self-represented otherwise to reduce the amount of legal fees you may have to incur, you can ask a lawyer if they are willing to accept a limited scope retainer. This would allow you to obtain legal services for part, but not all of your legal matter.

When determining the limited scope retainer, you and the lawyer should discuss and establish the scope of the representation, including any limits. The retainer should clearly identify the services that will be provided, including how communication with opposing counsel and the Court will be managed. The scope should be clear and confirmed in writing in order to prevent any confusion between you and the lawyer regarding expectations.

  1. Receive Independent Legal Advice: If you are in the process of negotiating a Cohabitation Agreement, Marriage Contract, Separation Agreement, Parenting and/or Property Division Agreement, Sperm Donor Agreement, or any other kind of “agreement”, you can (and should) retain a lawyer for the purpose of receiving independent legal advice. This does not mean that you have to retain a lawyer to negotiate the terms of the agreement for you. This simply means that you would retain a lawyer to review the terms of the said agreement with you prior to signing it so they can provide you with legal advice on those terms.

A lawyer who is retained to provide Independent Legal Advice will review the draft agreement with you as well as any supporting documentation (such as financial disclosure, for example) to ensure you have enough information to make a voluntary and informed decision.  If you wish to continue negotiations thereafter, you can continue to do so on your own. The lawyer will no longer be retained unless you chose to retain them on an ongoing basis.

  1. Retain a “Mentor”: If you are unable to retain a lawyer but wish to receive advice on the court process, how to complete court documents, and so on, you can ask a lawyer if they are willing to provide some amount of mentorship to you throughout your legal matter.

If a lawyer accepts to be retained for the purpose of providing you with mentorship, this would be considered as a type of Limited Scope Retainer. This lawyer would not be retained to act for you on an ongoing basis. They would not be your Solicitor of Record, which means they would not advise the opposing party, their lawyer (if any), or the Court that they have been retained. They would essentially just lerk in the shadows and help you on an “as needed” basis while you represent yourself.

Some of the things the lawyer could do under this type of retainer is provide you with legal advice, provide you with guidance when completing court documents, review court documents prior to them being filed and tell you if anything should be changed, included, or removed, provide “coaching” ahead of any court appearance to let you know what you can expect or what should be addressed with the Court, and so on. However, this lawyer would not draft your documents for you, communicate with the opposing party or the Court, or represent you in Court.

If you cannot afford to retain a lawyer on an ongoing basis but are interested in any of the other options discussed above, please reach out to a lawyer at MDW Law. We would be happy to schedule a meeting to discuss these options with you further.  

Share this with others