In October 2021, Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Services Project (the “Project”) found its new home at Osgoode Hall Law School under the combined care of the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution and the Osgoode Mediation Clinic. The Project’s mandate is to improve access to family justice for middle-income Ontarians by establishing an online, province-wide directory of trained lawyers willing to provide unbundled legal services. These services, which include limited-scope retainers, legal coaching and summary legal counsel in family law matters, allow clients to maintain general control over the case while also receiving legal assistance from a lawyer on discrete tasks. Prospective clients are able to search the online directory by the lawyer’s name, the location of the lawyer, the services offered, and the languages in which the services can be provided.
As students with the Family/Youth Division of the Medication Clinic working alongside Jean-Paul Bevilacqua, Assistant Director of the Winker Institute for Dispute Resolution and Director of the Osgoode Mediation Clinic, and Shelley Kierstead and Trevor Farrow, academic co-directors of the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution, we have excitedly taken on this significant initiative towards enhancing access to justice for unrepresented and self-represented litigants (“SRLs”) in family law. Our team is grateful for the great work and dedication of the Project’s originating Steering Committee and Investigators. A special thanks is owed to Helena Birt, the Project’s Senior Program Director, who has been our guide and facilitator in transitioning the Project to Osgoode.
Helena is a skilled lawyer with almost forty years of experience in family law and government legal management. She started her career in private practice but was quickly drawn to the complexities and challenges of duty counsel. Helena likens the position of duty counsel to an emergency room physician – assessing the case and triaging what resources are available. Helena’s talents were readily recognized and she was later recruited as the Provincial Manager of Family Duty Counsel Services for Legal Aid Ontario.
It was in this position that Helena began to foster her expertise in project management through the creation and implementation of duty counsel programs in family courts across Ontario. In 2010, Helena began working as private counsel to the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Family Responsibility Office, where she continued to build her expertise in project management and family law access to justice. Helena was introduced to the Project after meeting Professor Nicholas Bala and the Chair of the Project’s Steering Committee, Tami Moscoe, at the 2017 Family Law Summit. Helena was drawn to the Project’s access to justice and project development components and has been working as the Program Director since 2018.
Helena believes that the Project is important because the traditional model of retaining a lawyer from start to finish in a family law matter is not financially realistic for many Ontarians. She explains that the project addresses this access-to-justice concern in a three-prong approach:
1) Educating the public – what unbundled or limited-scope legal services are and how they can be accessed.
2) Educating the Bar – providing education to lawyers on limited-scope services and how they can be safely implemented in practice.
3) Maintaining a roster – keeping an updated roster of lawyers who have been accredited to provide limited-scope services through the Project.
A Phase 1 report on the Project is planned to be released to the Law Foundation of Ontario in the coming weeks. Helena indicates that the project has been successful with impressive positive feedback from both clients and lawyers. By accessing unbundled legal services, clients feel empowered and supported in pursuing their legal cause, while lawyers can generate new incomes and more customized services. While we await the Phase 1 report, Helena believes that the next steps for the Project should aim to focus on public outreach and education. She suggests creating literature on limited-scope services that can be accessed at client-focused locations such as family courts, legal aid clinics, and community centers.
Our team feels a great sense of responsibility accepting stewardship of the Project in recognition of the time and meticulous effort of Helena and the rest of the Project’s originating team. We are grateful for Helena’s guidance and look forward to her continued support of the Project at Osgoode.
Looking back with Helena Birt – former Senior Program Director of the FLLSS Project
February 27, 2022
Interested in hearing about what our roster lawyers are saying about limited scope services in family law? Check out the articles and blogs posted by members of our Online Lawyer Directory. Submissions from roster lawyers are always welcome!
Oct 30, 2020: Susan Blackwell is one of our roster lawyers with an active social media presence. See her earlier posting below. Most recently, Ms. Blackwell has posted a new blog on her website for Access to Justice week about the importance of client feedback and lists the links to current surveys as well as the reports from old ones. The link is: www.blackwellfamilylaw.ca/
Heather Hui-Litwin is a lawyer and co-founder of the Self-Rep Navigators (www.limitedscoperetainers.ca), a group of lawyers who offer unbundled or limited scope legal services to litigants. She has produced two You-Tube videos through her website, Litigation-Help.com, as part of a public legal education initiative. In the videos, Ms. Hui-Litwin talks to Helena Birt, Senior Program Director of the Family Law Limited Scope Services Project: How to Hire a Lawyer Affordably Part 1: “Limited Scope” Or “Unbundled” services. https://youtu.be/aXf3drNnv4A; How to Hire a Lawyer Affordably Part 2: Ontario Family Law Limited Scope Services Project https://youtu.be/JE6pp0xee9s.
AJ Jakubowska, family lawyer and mediator, devoted an entire episode on her SANE SPLIT Podcast to limited scope legal services! The episode features AJ’s dialogue with Janice Ho and Lucia Lam, also family law lawyers. They cover a range of subjects related to limited scope legal services, including what these services are, with practical examples, payment options and how to find a lawyer providing these services. Listen to it here: http://www.separationinontario.com/sane-split-podcast/my-guests-are-janice-ho-and-lucia-lam.
July 2, 2020: Susan Blackwell of Blackwell Family Law uses the plight of the RV couple stranded at the border as reported by the CBC as a jumping-off point for her thoughts and discusses the benefits of getting limited scope advice to understand your rights and responsibilities before problems arise: https://www.blackwellfamilylaw.ca/bflblog/2020/7/2/cross-border-couples-ordeal-shines-light-on-the-many-meanings-of-common-law