B.C.'s Law Week highlights access to justice issues

The Canadian Bar Association is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the signing of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in B.C., the Vancouver Law Society is bringing attention to the issue of access to justice during this year's Law Week.

Martin Finch, the chair of the Access to Legal Services Advisory Committee at the Law Society of B.C., says 41 per cent of people appearing in family law cases in the province had to represent themselves in 2014 and 2015.

"It gets worse ... In the court of appeal in 2015, that number went to 57 per cent," he said. 

"The court of appeal is a court of great significance in terms of creating precedents for other cases, not just the single case that goes before the court on that time."

When people can't access representation or advice, Finch says the results can be disastrous.

"They can be unacceptably and improperly wrong, when in fact a different outcome could have occurred — and would have resulted — had they had good legal advice and the involvement of a lawyer," he said.

Self-representation also puts judges in a precarious position.

"A judge, of course, has to be impartial, " Finch explained.

"If one person appears with a lawyer, and the other hasn't a lawyer, it can't be the role of the judge to be both lawyer and judge even as much as the judge is concerned to ensure justice always occurs."

'Unbundled' services possible solution

One possible solution has been unbundling legal services — like how you unbundle cable television packages, Finch said.

Instead of the traditional method of retaining a lawyer from the beginning of the case to the end, you can hire the lawyer for just specific parts of the work or to give advice or direction for a longer trial, he said.

"I don't think it's ever going to be as good as having a lawyer completely involved in the case from beginning to end, but it will give that person direction, focus," he said.

The society has developed a tool-kit with Mediate B.C. for lawyers interested in offering that kind of service. For clients interested in finding a lawyer offering unbundled services, visit the Family Unbundled Legal Services Project website for a full roster.

In addition, as part of Law Week, the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association will hold its province-wide "Dial-A-Lawyer Day" on April 22 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PT, where B.C. residents can call in for a 15-minute legal consultation. 

Listen to the interview with Martin Finch on CBC's The Early Edition: