Buyer Beware When Seeking Assistance on Legal Matters from Non-Legal Professionals
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Courts have modified their services. While emergency matters are still being heard routinely, other court proceedings who do not meet the test of urgency are being delayed. This has caused some serious concerns about a family court file’s ability to access a Judge or a Master in order to determine important questions. What are parties to do in these circumstances?
As a result of the court’s inability to conduct in-person appearances in family law matters, lawyers and parties have had to adapt and look at other options in order to discuss and settle these important and sometimes pressing issues.
Added to the court’s reduced services is the financial impact that the pandemic has had on a party’s ability to afford legal representation by retaining a family law lawyer to address their family law issues.
One way to have these issues determined in a cost-effective way is to seek assistance from other professionals to help navigate legal questions following a separation. Unfortunately, not all professionals are qualified to provide the necessary information needed in order to determine the most important issues stemming from a separation including what parenting arrangements are best, what support obligations may be appropriate and how to divide property accumulated during the marriage. The purpose of this blog is to raise some considerations when determining which professional to consult and retain to assist you if you have separated from your spouse.
There are a variety of professionals who advertise providing their services to assist a family through their separation. These professionals can be counsellors, therapists, mediators and social workers. The difference here is that none of these professionals are lawyers. While some mediators suggest that they are experienced in drafting legal documents and agreements, they do not have the authority to provide any legal advice as they are not licensed to do so. I doubt that you would allow your neighbour to extract your tooth if he was not a dentist. The same goes for legal professionals. There is a reason why lawyers have to go to university over the course of several years and pass exams in order to be granted a licence to practice. Completing a Financial Statement or a Net Family Property Statement in order to determine the property division is not as simple as just filling in the information required. The same goes for a divorce application. There are many legal considerations that a non-legal professional may not be aware of.
Some non-legal professionals such as social workers may be very helpful to parents in discussing and preparing a Parenting Agreement touching on the needs of their children. These professionals have the knowledge and experience to assist on these matters but will not usually provide services on financial matters. Some financial professionals advertise that they are divorce specialists. While they may have the knowledge to complete financial documents and advise on tax and other financial issues, they do not have the licence to give legal advice to a client on the laws of Ontario regarding division of assets, spousal support or child support.
While a one-stop shop offering a variety of services has a certain appeal, the downside can be emotionally and financially costly. Imagine negotiating a Separation Agreement over the course of several weeks and months only to learn at a later date that the Agreement is unenforceable and void and that all issues must then be litigated in court. This is a real risk if the process does not include a lawyer in some capacity.
There is no doubt that retaining a lawyer can be costly and that court proceedings are quite adversarial, long and costly. There are other ways of retaining a lawyer to assist you and to keep the legal fees to a reasonable cost. A lawyer in Ontario can provide his or her services on a limited scope basis. For example, you may have a general consultation with a lawyer to be advised of your rights and obligations or to assist you with the preparation of your Financial Statement. The purpose of unbundling of services is to provide access to family justice to parties who are unable to retain a lawyer for the duration of court proceedings. Even having a consultation with a lawyer prior to or after separation is important and may save you some serious stress in the long term. Spending a few hundred dollars now could save you several thousands of dollars later.
Once you are aware of your legal rights and obligations from a lawyer, you will be in a better position to determine what options are available to you on how to proceed with your separation or divorce. If you do proceed with a non-legal professional, it is strongly recommended that you have a consultation with a lawyer prior to meeting with this person or making any decision on the issues stemming from your separation.
If you have any questions about a family law matter, you can contact one of the members of the LMR Family Law Group for information at www.lmrlawyers.com.[ssba]