Family breakdown is a difficult, stressful time for women and their children. If you and your partner separate, you will have to sort out many legal problems. You will likely have to make decisions about financial support, arrangements about your children and divide your family property. These are difficult issues. Some couples can deal with the issues on their own. But in most cases, you will need some help to sort out the issues with your partner
Before trying to find a lawyer, it may be helpful to first gather some general legal information about your situation. The websites listed below offer free legal information to help you learn more about your legal rights, responsibilities, and options:
- Family Law Education for Women (FLEW)
- Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO)
- Your Legal Rights
- Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General
You can also get free legal information about family law, court processes, court forms and referrals to lawyers at these places:
- Family Law Information Centres (FLIC) – located at family courthouses across the province
- Legal Aid Family Law Service Centres (FLSC) – currently located in Toronto, North York, Brampton, Newmarket, Sarnia, Windsor, Chatham, and Welland.
- Legal Aid Family Law Offices – currently located in Kenora, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay
To use some of these services, you may have to show that you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. For more information about these services and to find locations near you, visit the Legal Aid Ontario website at www.legalaid.on.ca or call toll-free at 1-800-668-8258.
Deciding When You Need A Lawyer
Not every situation needs a lawyer, but for many family law problems, it is important to get legal advice. If you do not get legal advice, you may give up some important rights that you do not know you have. When deciding whether or not you need a family law lawyer, ask yourself the following questions:
- Would your rights be affected if you do not have a lawyer to help you with the problem? (Do you risk losing your children, or your home? Has your partner abused you?)
- Can you and your partner talk calmly and reasonably? (Do you think you can reach a fair solution with your partner?)
- Are you comfortable, and is it safe, having contact with your partner?
- Does your partner have a lawyer?
- Do you want to go to Court?
- Do you have enough money to hire a lawyer?
- Do you qualify for Legal Aid?
- Can someone other than a lawyer help you?
- Can you do some things without a lawyer and other things with a lawyer?
If your relationship is or was abusive, there are services to help you.
- You can call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline:
- 416-863-0511 (in Toronto)
- 1-866-863-0511 (toll free)
- 1-866-863-7868 (TTY line)
This is a 24-hour crisis line, and services are available in more than 150 languages, 24 hours/7 days a week. In an emergency, you can also call the police (dial 911).
- If you are going to Family Court, Family Court Support Workers can help you. Family Court Support Workers help survivors of domestic violence who are involved in the family law Court process. A Court Support Worker can:
- provide information about the Family Court process
- help you prepare for Family Court proceedings
- refer you to other specialized services and supports in the community
- help with safety planning, such as getting to and from Court safely
- go with you to Court proceedings, in some cases.
If you need help finding a Family Court Support Worker, call the Victim Support Line:
- 416-314-2447 (in Toronto)
- 1-888-579-2888 (toll free)
- If your relationship is or was abusive, it is very important to talk to a lawyer.
Where To Look For A Family Law Lawyer
You should choose the lawyer who is right for you. The information in this booklet is not recommending any lawyer or legal service. If you do not know a family law lawyer, here are some places that can help you find one:
- Legal Aid Ontario (LAO)
Legal Aid Ontario provides legal assistance to Ontarians who can show that they cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Legal Aid cannot help with every type of legal problem, but you may be able to get help with difficult family law cases, such as:
- serious disagreements over decision making, (the responsibility for making significant decisions about a child’s well-being), parenting time, (the time a parent seeks to be with the child) child and spousal support, or division of property or contact orders (the time a third party, who is not a parent (i.e., a grandparent), wishes to spend with a child).
- difficult applications to change decision making orders and parenting time orders or spousal support orders.
Legal Aid also offers assistance in child protection cases.
To apply for Legal Aid, call the LAO Client Service Centre at 1-800-668-8258. Information is available in more than 200 languages. Find more information about Legal Aid Certificates below:
a) Domestic Violence
If you are experiencing violence or abuse and need immediate legal help, you can get a free two-hour consultation with a lawyer through the Family Violence Authorization Program. The program is offered through some women’s shelters, community legal clinics, Family Law Service Centres, and by calling Legal Aid’s Client Service Centre at 1-800-668-8258.
Even if you are not in immediate danger, it is important to consider telling Legal Aid if your partner is or was abusive. You may ask them to keep your information private.
In situations of domestic violence, Legal Aid Ontario will relax its strict rules about whether you can pay for a lawyer, when deciding if you can get legal help. Knowing about violence or abuse will also help Legal Aid better understand your legal needs and may help you get legal help faster.
b) Legal Aid Summary Advice Services
If you have a family law issue and meet Legal Aid Ontario’s low-income rules, you may be able to talk to a lawyer on the phone for up to 20 minutes. Summary advice is a lawyer’s general opinion based on the facts of your legal situation. The lawyer can tell you what legal options you have and suggest what you can do. You will not meet the lawyer in person, and the summary advice lawyer cannot represent you in Court. This service is available by calling Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258. Interpretation services are available in more than 200 languages. It is best to have your facts, documents, and questions ready before you call.
2. Community Legal Clinics
Your local community legal clinic may be able to suggest a family law lawyer in your area. Some community clinics offer limited family law services. There are 66 community legal clinics in Ontario, and 13 specialty legal clinics that focus on helping specific groups. To find a clinic nearest to you and best for you, call Legal Aid Ontario’s main line at 1-800-668-8258 or visit the website at www.legalaid.on.ca.
JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service helping people who need legal advice, but who do not qualify for legal aid. JusticeNet can help you find a lawyer who is willing to work for a lower fee. To find a participating lawyer in your area, use the directory on the website www.justicenet.ca
4. Family Law Lawyers in Private Practice
To help you find a family law lawyer in private practice, you can ask a relative, friend or support worker at a community agency or women’s shelter. You should try to find a lawyer who you are comfortable with and who you trust to help you with your legal problem. They should also have experience with your type of family law problem. Just because your friend liked a particular lawyer or your family tells you about a lawyer, this does not always mean they would be the right lawyer for you. The following services may help you find a lawyer in private practice:
- Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Referral Service can give you the name of a lawyer in your area who will give you a one-time, free half-hour consultation. You may decide to hire this lawyer, but you do not have to. You can apply online at www.findlegalhelp.ca 24 hours a day.
- If you are in crisis, you can call the crisis line: 416-947-5255 / 1-855-947-5255; Monday – Friday between 9 am – 5 pm.
- Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Lawyer Directory of certified family law specialists practicing law in Ontario at lso.on.ca.
You can call the following numbers:
- You can also visit the following website:
Lawyer and Paralegal Directory | Law Society of Ontario (lso.ca)
Canadian Family Law Lawyers Network is a network of lawyers who practice in family law. A member lawyer in your city will call you within 24 hours of receiving your name and number. Your first conversation with the lawyer is confidential and free. After you talk to the lawyer, you can decide whether or not you want to hire them, but you do not have to. You can fill out a request on their website at www.cflln.ca or call 1-888-660-4869 (toll free).
5. Your local shelter for abused women may also be able to refer you to a local family law lawyer.
Getting Help At The Courthouse
If you are going to Court for a family law issue, you may be able to get some legal information and advice at the courthouse.
- Duty Counsel
If you have to appear in Court and do not have a lawyer, you may be able to get free legal advice at the courthouse from a Duty Counsel lawyer. You may have to show that you do not have money to pay a lawyer. Duty Counsel lawyers will be at most family courthouses. They can explain the Court’s process, help you prepare documents for Court, or help you try to settle your matter. In some cases, Duty Counsel may be able to represent you in Court, for simple matters.
At some family law Courts, you can also get help from law students. Law students can help people who do not have a lawyer to fill out Court forms.
- Mandatory Information Programs
If you or your partner starts a Family Court case, in most cases, you will each have to attend an information program that explains the Court process and provides local resources for families going through separation and/or divorce. Mandatory Information Programs (MIP) are available at Family Court locations across Ontario. The information is also available online. To find a family mediator and information service provider who provides the program in your area, click on the following link: https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/family/service_provider_by_family_court_location.php
- Family Mediation Services
Mediation is a way that partners can agree to settle their problems outside of the courtroom, with the help of a mediator, who is a third person that both partners accept and trust. Family mediators are available in all Family Courts in Ontario. You can speak to a family mediator about your case for free if your case is scheduled in Court on that day.
Legal Aid Ontario also offers free mediation services if either you or your partner meets Legal Aid’s low-income rule. You can ask for Legal Aid mediation services at some courthouses, at Family Law Service Centres, and Family Law Information Centres.
If you can pay for a mediator yourself, there are also many private mediation services.
Mediation is not always recommended if there is or has been abuse in a relationship.
For more information about mediation, you may want to read, “Family Dispute Resolution in Family Law” or watch the webinar, “Conflict, Court or Another Way?: Different Ways to resolve a Family Dispute”, both on the FLEW website.
How To Pay For Your Family Law Lawyer
- Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) — Certificates
Hiring a lawyer will cost money. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the Ontario government may help you pay for a lawyer. You can apply to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) for a Legal Aid Certificate to help you pay for a lawyer, to give advice for some family law issues.
A Certificate is a voucher that guarantees the lawyer will get paid by Legal Aid for representing you for a certain number of hours. The number of hours is based on the kind of legal help you need and is marked on the certificate (more hours can sometimes be added). Sometimes, Legal Aid Ontario will give you a Certificate if you agree to pay them back.
If Legal Aid Ontario gives you a Certificate, you can use the Certificate to hire a lawyer of your choice. Not all lawyers accept Legal Aid Certificates. When you call to make an appointment, make sure to ask if the lawyer does legal aid work.
If your partner has abused or bullied you, you can get a Legal Aid Certificate for two hours of free legal advice. You do not have to prove you have a low income to get this Certificate.
You must fill out a form called the “Advice Lawyer Family Violence Authorization” that you can get from some community legal clinics, women’s shelters, Family Law Service Centres or by calling Legal Aid directly.
For more information, or to apply for a Legal Aid Certificate, you can apply in person at one of the Legal Aid Family Law Service Centres, or visit their website
at www.legalaid.on.ca, or call:
- 416-979-1446 (in Toronto)
- 1-800-668-8258 (toll free)
- 1-866-641-8867 (for TTY)
- Lawyers in Private Practice
If you do not have a Legal Aid Certificate and you are paying for a lawyer’s fees yourself, it is very important to make sure that you understand what the lawyer will include in your bill. Make sure to ask what you will have to pay the lawyer to do, how much they think your case will cost, and if there are any other ways in which you can pay them before you start working together. Usually, you will have to pay fees for the lawyer’s time, and for other costs, such as photocopying and court fees, from working on your case. These other things are called disbursements.
You can ask your lawyer to answer any questions about your bill at any time. As you work on your case, it is a good idea to regularly ask how the lawyer has billed you, and when you will have to pay. Some lawyers will agree to work on a “sliding scale,” which means they will charge lower fees if you have a lower income. JusticeNet can help you find a lawyer who is willing to work for a lower fee. To find a participating lawyer in your area, use the directory on the website www.justicenet.ca
If you are finding it difficult to pay a lawyer, you can save money by asking a lawyer to help you with part of your case. This means that the lawyer will be giving you unbundled services. Unbundled services are also called legal coaching, unbundled legal services or limited scope services. To find a list of lawyers who can provide unbundled services in family law, visit the website at: https://www.familylawlss.ca/lawyer-directory/
What To Look For In A Lawyer
When you call a new lawyer, make sure to ask if they have experience with family law. It is also important to look for a lawyer who:
- has experience with domestic violence, if you have been abused
- listens carefully
- explains things so you can understand
- answers your questions
- gives advice but also considers your wishes about your family problem
- is comfortable if you bring a person with you for support
- helps you find an interpreter if you need one
- does not make you feel rushed
- answers your calls within a few days
- is clear about the things that you must pay them to do
- will accept a Legal Aid Certificate, if you have one
- will accommodate your disability
- will meet you outside of the law office, if you ask
- lets you bring your kids to the office, if necessary
Remember to be prepared and organized for your phone calls and meetings with your lawyer. Ask questions and make sure you understand the answers. It is best for you to take notes to help you remember important points or ask someone you trust to go with you to the lawyer’s office. You must be able to speak openly and honestly in front of that person and be sure they will keep your information private.
Be prepared for your lawyer to ask you a lot of questions. It is important to be honest with your lawyer. You should tell them if your partner has ever bullied or abused you. Your lawyer will be able to help you best if you give as much information as possible about your situation.
If you are more comfortable working in French, you may want to read, “French Language Services and Family Law” on the FLEW website, or go to the Femmes ontariennes et droit de la famille (FODF) website www.undroitdefamille.ca.