Targeted Legal Services: We Are All Pieces of the Puzzle

Michael Gottheil, Executive Chair, Social Justice Tribunals Ontario

This article was originally posted on May 12, 2015 on the Gazette website – published by The Law Society of Upper Canada.

“Limited scope retainers”, “self-help”, “unbundling”, “brief service”– these terms are used to describe different approaches to address what has been called the “access to justice crisis”. We are told that a model which provides full representation by a lawyer is no longer sustainable, and we need to develop alternatives.

On May 12, 2015, the second in a series of three symposia will be held to explore these alternatives, and develop practical ways to enhance access to justice. The series is entitled Targeted Legal Services: We Are All Pieces of the Puzzle, and is co-hosted by the Law Society of Upper Canada and Social Justice Tribunals Ontario, under the TAG – The Action Group on Access to Justice banner.

We prefer the term “targeted legal services” because it is broader in scope, and avoids negative connotations associated with “unbundling” and “limited scope”. Targeted legal services includes limited scope retainers and self-help information, but also incorporates early resolution and dispute avoidance programs offered through community organizations, public legal information and referral services, ADR, alternative hearing processes at courts and tribunals, and alternative practice models for lawyers and paralegals.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, the concept of targeted legal services embraces a strategic approach to delivery and design of legal services. It focuses on what types of services individuals require, at what points in the evolution of a legal problem. It considers their circumstances, and the nature of the dispute. A strategic, targeted approach also looks at how the justice system should be designed to best serve the needs of the users, create synergies that respect and enhance the capacity of justice sector players to fulfill their mandates, and yes, even embrace efficiency.

At our initial session held in February, we situated the access to justice challenge, and its evolving responses, in an historical perspective. Panelists and participants discussed innovative examples of alternative forms of legal service delivery, and how community partners have an important role to play in providing information, support and connections to services. The panel members also provided insight into what is helpful and what may be missing from legal supports for self-represented litigants. What emerged was a thirst for more information on how lawyers, paralegals, courts and tribunals can put these ideas into practice.

The next session, on May 12 will pick up the discussion with three interactive panel discussions. The first will examine how the public accesses legal services, and programs that use “trusted intermediaries” like referral services and pro bono services. The second panel will explore the practical dimensions of alternative practice models, including liability issues, forms of retainers and the interplay between lawyers and paralegals. Finally, we will discuss examples of what courts and tribunals are doing to support more just and efficient resolutions, through ADR and alternative adjudicative models such as diversion courts, active adjudication, and collaborative and restorative models.

The challenges in the justice system are not new, but they are growing, and we are all on the burning raft. Lawyers, paralegals, judges, tribunal members and others who are committed to a fair justice system have a responsibility to participate in the efforts to respond and rebuild. The solutions need to be smart, integrated, and enhance our respective mandates for a just society.