Working with a Lawyer

If you have a complex family, criminal, or immigration law problem, you should get legal advice from a lawyer. However, you may not need to have a lawyer for some legal problems. This article tells you about the things you should think about when looking for a lawyer.

Deciding when you need a lawyer

When do I need a lawyer?

When trying to decide if you need a lawyer, it is a good idea to gather some general legal information about your situation first.

To learn more about your options, rights, and responsibilities, the OWJN website has legal information on many different topics. Other places that offer legal information are:

Family Law Education for Women (FLEW)
Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO)
Ministry of the Attorney General

For more resources, see the list at the end of this article.

What questions should I ask before deciding whether I need a lawyer?

  • Would your rights be affected if you do not have a lawyer to help you with the problem?
  • Do you risk losing your children, being deported, or going to jail
  • Could you reach a fair solution with your partner?
  • Are you comfortable having contact with your partner?
  • Is it safe to discuss things with your partner?
  • Does your partner have a lawyer?
  • Do you want to go to court?
  • Do you have 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 you are dealing with an abusive partner or ex-partner, you should make sure that you have a lawyer. Your lawyer will make arrangements so that your abusive partner or ex-partner does not have contact with you.

Where to look for a lawyer

How can I find a lawyer?

You should try to find a lawyer who you are comfortable with and that you trust to help you with your legal problem. You should take the time to find the right lawyer for you. Just because your friend liked a particular lawyer or your family recommends a lawyer does not always mean they would be the right lawyer for you.

You can find a lawyer by contacting any of the following places:

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO):

LAO pays for a lawyer to represent low-income people with certain types of family, criminal or immigration cases. You must prove that you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer by meeting their financial eligibility guidelines. To apply for legal aid, it is best to call the Client Service Centre telephone access number 1-800-668-8258. In many cities, you can also visit a legal aid office or ask one of the service centres to help you to apply. LAO will issue a certificate when your application to pay for a lawyer is approved.

Legal Aid services for survivors of abuse

If you are being abused and you need immediate help, you can get a two-hour consultation with a lawyer through the Family Violence Authorization Program. The program is offered at some women’s shelters and community legal clinics. Legal Aid Ontario helps women experiencing domestic violence and survivors of abuse by:

  • Making it easier for women who are being abused to qualify for legal aid
  • Allowing all survivors of abuse including those with uncertain immigration status to access their services
  • Offering free telephone interpretation services for non-English or non-French speaking applicants

A Community Legal Clinic:

Community legal clinics provide legal help with issues such as social assistance, family benefits, workers’ compensation, employment, immigration, and landlord/tenant issues. Some clinics provide limited family law assistance and may be able to refer you to a lawyer. You do not need to have a Legal Aid Certificate to use the services of a clinic. Each community legal clinic will tell you if you can get help from them.


JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service helping people who need legal advice, but who did not qualify for legal aid. JusticeNet can help you find a lawyer who is willing to work at a reduced rate. To find a participating lawyer in your area, use the directory on the website

Community Agencies:

Call community agencies, such as counseling services or women’s shelters. Ask if they know any lawyers who can help you. Many violence against women services keep information on lawyers that can help you decide on the best choice for you.

Ask other people:

Ask family, friends, co-workers, and people in your community if they can recommend a lawyer.

Check the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Lawyer Directory.

You can find lawyers including Certified Family Law Specialists by  looking up a lawyer in the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Lawyer Directory at the following link: Lawyer and Paralegal Directory | Law Society of Ontario (

The Law Society of Ontario’s Lawyer Referral Service:

The LSO’s Lawyer Referral Service will give you the name of a lawyer who does the kind of work you need. When you call, a service representative will ask you some questions to assist in sending you to the appropriate lawyer. Website: (English) or  (French) Crisis Line: 416-947-5255 or 1-855-947-5255, Monday – Friday, between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lawyers participating in the Service offer a half-hour free consultation in which you can get some general information about the law, how long your case might take, and how much it may cost to hire a lawyer. You decide whether or not you want to hire the lawyer to work for you. However, you can only get one referral per legal issue so if you decide not to hire that lawyer, you cannot ask the Service for another referral for the same problem.

The Canadian Family Law Lawyers Network:

CFLLN is a network of qualified lawyers who practice in family law. You can call 239-537-5339, 24 hours a day, or fill out the form on their website at A member lawyer in your city will call you within 24 hours of receiving your name and number. The first contact 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.

Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Services Project:

If you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to help you with your whole family law case, you can pay a lawyer to help you with parts of your case.  To find a family lawyer, who can help you with parts of your case, you will need to go to Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Services Project’s website at and search the list of lawyers who are available in your area and the types of services they provide.

Legal Aid Duty Counsel:

If you appear in criminal, family, or youth courts without a lawyer, you may be able to get help from duty counsel. Duty counsel are lawyers who can give immediate, legal assistance to low-income people who must prove that they cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Duty counsel services are available in courthouses across Ontario. Duty Counsel may be able to:

  • help with documents for court
  • explain court processes
  • help negotiate a settlement
  • represent you in family court for child protection, and simple matters about decision-making responsibility (used to be called “custody”), parenting time (used to be called “access”), and  support matters
  • provide assistance in criminal court for bail hearings, sentencing, diversion, guilty pleas, and adjournments.

How to pay for a lawyer

The ways to pay a lawyer are as follows:

Legal Aid Certificates

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) runs a certificate program that pays for a private lawyer to represent eligible, low-income Ontarians in matters in criminal or family courts, and certain administrative tribunals including immigration/refugee boards. A certificate is a voucher (promise) guaranteeing that the lawyer will get paid by LAO for representing you for a certain number of hours, which is stated on the certificate (more hours can sometimes be added). If you cannot afford a lawyer on your own, you may be able to receive a Legal Aid Certificate, which pays for a lawyer to represent you.

For more information about eligibility and how to apply, see Overview of Legal Aid Services.

Private Practice Lawyer Fees:

If you do not have a Legal Aid Certificate and you are paying for the lawyer fees yourself, it is very important to make sure that you understand how the lawyer will bill you for their time and to discuss billing and payment upfront.

a) What are fees and disbursements?

Fees are the cost of your lawyer’s time.

Disbursements are the other costs of working on your file, such as costs for photocopying, mailing, and faxing. You may also be responsible for court fees (for example, when you sue someone, there are costs to file the claim in court) and for the cost of hiring experts (for example, a family assessor) or obtaining reports (e.g. medical or therapeutic reports).

Your lawyer should be able to give you a rough estimate of how much the fees and disbursements are likely to be. You can ask your lawyer to put this estimate in writing and talk to you if it changes.

b) Billing

There are several ways that lawyers may bill for fees and you should discuss how you will be billed before you hire your lawyer so that both of you agree on how you will be billed.


Usually, when you hire a lawyer you have to pay a “retainer” which is a deposit you pay to the lawyer so that they can start to represent you. Paying a retainer shows you are serious about trying to solve your legal problem, and that you are willing and able to pay for the lawyer’s services. The retainer is usually a part of what the lawyer expects the final bill to be. Typically, a lawyer will not start working on your file until you pay the retainer.

Hourly Basis

Most lawyers bill by the hour, which means that they bill you for the time they spend working on your file. This includes telephone calls, giving their assistant instructions, taking documents to the court, etc. If you have provided your lawyer with a retainer, they will bill “against” the retainer. This means that they will send you the bill, showing that they have been paid from your money that you gave them as a retainer. When the retainer is used up, you will need to give them more money until your legal matter ends. If you have not provided a retainer, you will be expected to pay each bill promptly or the lawyer will be reluctant to continue working on your file. If you are working with limited money, you should insist that your lawyer bills you on a regular basis, so you are not surprised by an enormous bill after several months.

Flat Rate

Some lawyers may bill you on a “flat rate” which means that you will pay a certain amount of money for their services, no matter how much time they spend working on the file. A lawyer may bill a flat rate for a matter like a simple will. If you are being billed on a flat rate, you can call your lawyer without worrying about extra costs, but it is still a good idea to be aware of your lawyer’s time. It is extremely unlikely that a lawyer would work on a family law file for a flat rate, as these files are all very different and it is almost impossible to predict at the beginning how much work any file will take.

Sliding Scale

Some lawyers offer a “sliding scale” payment arrangement, meaning that they will charge you less money if you have a low income. JusticeNet, Ontario’s Family Law Limited Scope Services Project, community legal clinics or women’s organizations may be able to recommend such lawyers. You will likely have to provide proof of your income and assets for a lawyer to agree to represent you for less money.

Contingency billing 

Contingency billing cannot be used for criminal or family law cases. Contingency billing is where a lawyer is paid a percentage of the amount of money you receive if you win your case; the lawyer is not paid if you lose your case.

Before you agree to a contingency billing arrangement, your lawyer will give you a consumer guide that has information on what you need to know about contingency fees.

Even in a contingency billing arrangement, you will almost always have to pay disbursements on an ongoing basis.

You must sign a contract with your lawyer, so you know exactly what the terms of your arrangement are. In most cases, your lawyer will use a standard form Contingency Fee Agreement.

What to look for in a lawyer

When deciding which lawyer to work with, you should look for someone who:

  • has experience dealing with cases like yours
  • has experience with domestic violence, if you have been abused
  • listens closely
  • explains things so you can understand
  • answers your questions
  • gives advice but also considers your wishes about your legal 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 billing
  • 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 that the location of the lawyer’s office is also important.                                                                              It should be:
    • easy to get to
    • in a safe area

For information and tips about how to work with a lawyer, see the OWJN article, Tips for Working with a Lawyer.

Related Articles:

Tips for Working with a Lawyer
Introduction to the Canadian Legal System
A Map of the Canadian Court System
Understanding the Criminal Law Courts and Process
Understanding the Family Law Courts and Process
Making a Complaint to Legal Aid Ontario

Additionnal Resources

General Legal Information on Family Law

Legal Aid Ontario’s (LAO) Toll-Free Telephone Services

Legal Aid Ontario’s toll-free number, 1-800-668-8258 connects you to legal aid services, assistance and information. You may be able to get general information, referrals to other agencies, help applying for legal aid certificates, or summary advice.

Summary Advice is legal advice from a lawyer over the telephone.  They can give you general legal advice about your case including information on the court process, help filling out court forms, what you can do to resolve your case and more.  If you have a criminal or family law issue, you may be able to get summary legal advice from a lawyer for up to 20 minutes.

When you call LAO, a client service representative will ask you questions about your legal problem and tell you if you can receive summary legal advice. You can call the toll-free telephone service Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 1-800-668-8258 (or 416-979-1446 in Toronto) to get legal aid help in over 300 languages.

Family Law Service Centres

Family Law Service Centres (FLSCs) offer eligible clients a range of legal resources and support for family matters, including:

  • help with documents
  • referrals to advice lawyers
  • free legal representation in family law cases by a staff lawyer, if eligible
  • mediation and settlement conferences

Each of the FLSCs serve clients going to the family courts located in their area, so it is important that you contact the FLSC in the region where your court case is located. FLSCs are located in Toronto, North York, Newmarket, Brampton, Chatham, Sarnia, Welland, and Windsor. Find the FLSC near you.

Family Law Information Centres and advice lawyers

Family Law Information Centres (FLICs) offer free assistance and information on family law issues. FLICs are found in family courthouses across the province. You can find information about family law in Ontario or speak with an advice lawyer. These are lawyers who provide general legal advice and can help with preparing documents. For more information on FLICs click on the following link:

Mandatory Information Program

If you are entering the family court system for the first time, you may likely be required to take the Mandatory Information Program. The program gives you information on the family court process, how separation and divorce affect adults and children, legal definitions, and more, and is given at the courthouse or online.  To find a family mediator and information service provider who provides the program in your area click on the following link:  |

Family court support worker program

If you have experienced domestic violence and you have a case in family court you can get support from a family court support worker.  They can give you information on the family court process, help you to prepare for court, and help you to get other assistance and support.  To find a family court support worker near you, click on the following link:

To find more information about the program or to get help with finding a worker, you can call the 24/7 number toll-free at 1-888-579-2888 (or 416-314-2447 in the GTA).

Interpretation and accessibility services

Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT)
Information and referral services for disability issues. Also has services for women in abusive relationships.

TTY: Dial 711 for Bell Relay Service
Tel: 416-599-2458
Toll-free 1-800-354-9950

Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters. The website at has a directory of interpreters in Ontario.

Canadian Hearing Society
Offers Ontario Interpreting Services and other accessibility services.

TTY: 1-877-215-9530

Tel: 1-866-518-0000

Email: [email protected]

SMS/TEX: 416-712-6637 (charges may apply)

Silent Voice
Services and community referrals for Deaf children, youth, adults, and families.

TTY: 416-463-3933

Tel: 416-463-1104

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