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Andrea Himel sm

New family law self-represented litigant project launches in Toronto

Friday, January 10, 2020 @ 2:26 PM | By Amanda Jerome


Ontario’s family law bar has come together to launch a project aimed at assisting self-represented litigants through the system at the  Superior Court of Justice in Toronto.

According to a press release, the ASC Toronto (Advice and Settlement Counsel) project will have two private family lawyers at the court on Tuesdays and Fridays to provide “summary advice and assistance on all family law matters, assist in negotiating consents, and even appear in court.” Self-represented litigants will be able to access these services by paying $200 per hour, plus HST, directly to the roster lawyer.

The project, which will begin on Jan. 14, was launched with support from the Superior Court of Justice Family Law Bench and Bar Committee and the Family Law Limited Scope Services Project (FLLSSP).

“For many years, there has been a need for self-represented litigants to have access to affordable family law services and the family law bar is trying a variety of initiatives to meet that need,” said Andrea Himel, one of the project’s co-ordinators.

Andrea Himel

The challenges for self-reps, Himel said, became more acute in July 2019 when Legal Aid Ontario “made the decision to withdraw all services from Superior Court family law sites,” to people who qualify financially, “in response to the government’s cutbacks of $130 million to their budget.”

“Up until July of 2019, any litigant, or potential litigant, could have got up to 20 minutes of summary legal advice on certain topics in family law, including, for example, custody and access and child support. After that, only people who qualified financially were able to get any kind of help,” she said, noting this change was the impetus for the ASC Toronto project.

ASC Toronto was also inspired by a similar project that’s being run out of Barrie, which Himel said, acted as a “springboard” for how the bar could provide assistance at the Superior Court in Toronto.

Himel noted that the Barrie project had lawyers available at the court one day a week, which was increased to two days a week, with two lawyers, for the Toronto location.

“The need for two lawyers really relates to the fact that we are offering a wide variety of services, including the option of litigants asking us to argue a motion. Tuesdays are motions dates in Toronto and there needs to be two lawyers in the event that there are two self-reps that are litigants on the same file who want to have representation at the motion,” she explained.

The decision to include lawyers at the court on Friday afternoons was inspired by one of the Toronto judges who identified that time slot as “heavily weighted” with self-represented litigants, Himel added.

According to Himel, the project will be evaluated by Dr. Rachel Birnbaum, a professor of social work, cross-appointed to childhood studies (interdisciplinary studies) and social work at King’s University College at Western, who has undertaken the research component at FLLSSP.

“She is already evaluating Barrie and we had the benefit of being able to speak with her to get some feedback” said Himel, noting the research she’s done has already helped the development of ASC Toronto.

Himel, who is a project co-ordinator along with Lorna Yates, Tammy Law and Cheryl Goldhart, said the panel of lawyers involved with the project has “a diversity of experience, cultural background, language, [and] skills.”

Family law lawyers interested in the project can apply to help but must meet certain criteria. Himel said the lawyers “have to be at least a five-year call, they have to do 50 per cent family law and they have to do the [project] training.”

“There’s no guarantee that lawyers who apply will get a space on the panel,” she added.

ASC Toronto held one training session last year and will hold another on Jan. 20, 2020 for lawyers interested in joining the panel.

Although the project is currently only in Toronto, Himel said the project could be taken up in other areas.

“We’ve already been contacted by lawyers from two different jurisdictions saying they’re interested in starting this project in their jurisdictions,” she explained, adding that the ASC Toronto panel is happy to share its materials with interested jurisdictions as it sees the project as a “collaborative approach.”

Himel stressed that the project has already received a lot of support from individual lawyers, as well as sole practitioners and big firms who want to get involved.

“We’ve also had a lot of support from the judges at court. We’ve had the support of Torkin Manes [LLP] who assisted us with the development, design and printing of all of our written materials,” she said, noting their help with the project’s brochures, bookmarks and posters available at the court.

“And Epstein Cole [LLP] provided us training space for our original [training] session,” she added, stressing the family law bar’s support.

“We firmly believe there’s a need for this type of work and it really is one of the family bar’s responses to access to justice challenges that are being faced by litigants in the family court,” she explained.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Amanda Jerome at Amanda.Jerome@lexisnexis.ca or call 416-524-2152.