Everyday legal problems — from getting divorced, to fighting eviction notices, to disputing cell phone bills — cost Canadians about $7.7 billion a year.
But the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of these problems are also estimated to cost society about $800 million a year in healthcare and social services payments.
The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFJA) has released a report analyzing data gathered from more than 3,000 Canadians through extensive phone surveys that asked them about their experiences with legal problems.
The results highlight the need for serious political attention to be focused on the “justice health of Canadians,” says CFJA chair and Osgoode Hall Law School professor Trevor Farrow.
“The evidence of the cost of justice project shows us that the impact of poorly handled legal problems is dramatic,” he said.
The study found that almost half of Canadian adults will experience a serious family or civil law problem in any given three-year period. Consumer, debt and employment issues are the most frequent source of legal problems, followed by neighbour, discrimination and family matters.
Those problems are almost always resolved outside the formal justice system, according to the Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada report, often without the person receiving any advice from a lawyer.
Despite that, the average cost of resolving an everyday legal problem is $6,100.
Stress and emotional difficulties accompanied the experience of a legal problem, according to more than half of the survey respondents. Along with increasing healthcare spending, the survey found that everyday legal problems result in an increase in employment insurance and social assistance payments.
“One of the things this study shows is how deep justice issues cut into the welfare of society,” said Farrow.
Michele Leering, a lawyer and executive director with a community legal clinic in eastern Ontario and a member of the Canadian Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee, says the report’s findings reflect “exactly what happens on the ground.”
Without early or effective intervention, she says, a single everyday legal issue can result in multiple impacts for affected individuals and their families.
“We call it the domino effect — when a triggering legal problem leads to a cascade of other issues,” says Leering.
Following on the heels of several national reports identifying access to justice issues, the CFJA study’s evidence of the costs of an ineffective justice system provides a call to action, says Farrow.
He says the legal community must take leadership on “a menu of innovations and potential new ideas” that address the delivery of legal services, the functioning of courthouses and the availability of self-help tools.
“It’s time to face up to the reality of what’s actually happening in people’s lives. We need to make our legal services responsive to what people are actually needing and experiencing.”
“I think if lawyers don’t get out in front of the problem, at some point society’s going to get tired of the impact that’s happening and everyone’s going to go around the legal profession,” Farrow warns.
The unbundling of legal service is one option that has been gaining increasing momentum in recent months, says University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane, whose latest work has focused on self-represented litigants.
“It almost feels like it’s coming out of the closet,” she says. “We know that lots of lawyers have done this for years, if they had a former client who came back to them and begged and said, ‘I’ve only got $500, please help me.’ But they weren’t putting it out on their website that they offer unbundled services.”
With a growing number of conversations and professional development offerings around the topic, she decided the timing was right to create a database of professionals offering services to the “primarily self-represented market.”
Due to launch in October, the database will include lawyers, paralegals and other professionals offering services such as counselling and coaching. About 160 professionals are currently registered, most in family and general civil law, with more being sought at http://www.representingyourselfcanada.com.
While unbundled services can provide significant assistance to clients who can’t afford full-time representation but require some help with their legal problem, the model is a different way of managing files that can also work for lawyers, Macfarlane says.
“There is a market — an untapped market — and it might not make you $1 million, but you could make a perfectly good living this way,” she says.
Along with different models for doing business, Leering is hopeful that the recent studies will build an “access to justice consciousness” in the legal profession, and particularly in law students.
“This needs to be the hottest issue in law school,” she says. “I think that will have a transformative impact on the profession.”
Featured image added – Original republished without any permission whatsoever!
one Canadian, SRL
Self Represented Litigant