Working with a Lawyer
If you have a complex family, criminal or immigration law problem, getting legal advice is always recommended. However, some legal problems may not require a lawyer. This article will talk about the things you should consider when looking for a lawyer.
- Deciding when you need a lawyer
- Where to look for a lawyer
- How to pay for a lawyer
- What to look for in a lawyer
- Additional Resources
- Interpretation and Accessibility Services
Deciding when you need a lawyer
When trying to decide if you need a lawyer, it may be 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
Community Legal Education Ontario
Ministry of the Attorney General
Legal Aid Ontario
For more resources, see the list at the end of this article.
When deciding whether or not you need a lawyer, consider the following questions:
How important is the issue?
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?
Is it financially possible to hire a lawyer?
Do you qualify for Legal Aid?
Can someone other than a lawyer to 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, it is strongly recommended that you have a lawyer so that you do not have to come into contact with your abuser.
Where to look for a lawyer
Your goal should be to find a lawyer you have confidence in and feel comfortable with. Take the time to find the right one for you. Just because your friend liked a particular lawyer or your family recommends one does not always mean this will be the right lawyer for you.
There are a number of ways to find a lawyer:
Call Legal Aid Ontario (LAO):
LAO provides legal assistance for low-income people with certain types of family, criminal or immigration cases if you meet strict financial eligibility guidelines. To apply for legal aid, call the Client Service Centre telephone access number 1-800-668-8258. In many cities, you can visit a legal aid office or ask one of the service centres to help you apply for a certificate. Legal Aid services for survivors of abuse
If you are experiencing abuse and in need of 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 tries to put a high priority on helping women experiencing domestic violence and survivors of abuse. This includes:
- Relaxing the financial eligibility test for clients experiencing abuse
- Extending services to all survivors of abuse, regardless of immigration status in Canada.
- Offering free telephone interpretation services for non-English or non-French speaking applicants
Call a Community Legal Clinic:
Community legal clinics offer legal assistance in areas of law such as social assistance, family benefits, workers’ compensation, employment, immigration, and landlord/tenant issues. Some clinics provide limited family law assistance and may have lawyer contacts. You do not require a Legal Aid certificate to use the services of a clinic. Each community legal clinic will have its own eligibility requirements that are different from Legal Aid’s.
Find a Community Legal Clinic near you:
Contact Justice Net: Justice Net is a not-for-profit service helping people who need legal advice, but who did not qualify for legal aid. Justice Net can help you find a lawyer that is willing to work at a reduced rate. To find a participating lawyer in your area, use the directory on the website www.justicenet.ca or call toll free: 1-866-919-3219.
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 family, friends, co-workers, and people in your community if they can recommend a lawyer.
Look up a lawyer in the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Lawyer Directory for Certified Family Law Specialists
Call the Law Society of Ontario’s Lawyer Referral Service:
The 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: www.findlegalhelp.ca (English) or www.recherchejuriste.ca (French)Crisis Line: 416-947-5255 or 1-855-947-5255Lawyers 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 hiring a lawyer might cost. 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.
Call the Canadian Family Law Lawyers Network:
CFLLN is a network of qualified lawyers who practice in family law. You can call toll free at 1-888-660-4869 24 hours a day or fill out the form on their website. A member-lawyer in your city will call you within 24 hours of receiving your name and number. The first contact is confidential and free. After you talk to the lawyer, you can decide whether or not you want to hire him/her, but you do not have to.
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 meet eligibility requirements. Duty counsel services are available in courthouses across Ontario. They 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 custody, access, support matters
- provide assistance in criminal court for bail hearings, sentencing, diversion, guilty pleas, and adjournments.
How to pay for a lawyer
Legal Aid Certificates
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) runs a certificate program which allows eligible, low-income Ontarians to have representation by a private lawyer in proceedings before the criminal or family courts, certain administrative tribunals, or 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 specified on the certificate. If you cannot afford a lawyer on your own, you may be able to receive a Legal Aid certificate, which allows you to get legal help without cost to 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 even more important to make sure that you understand how the lawyer will bill you for her/his time and to discuss billing and payment up front.
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.
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 have clear expectations.
Usually there is a “retainer” which is a deposit you pay to the lawyer in order to retain their services. Paying a retainer shows you are serious about pursuing the case, and that you are willing and able to pay for the lawyer’s services. The retainer is usually a portion 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.
Most lawyers bill by the hour, which means that they bill you for the time they spend working on the file. This includes telephone calls, giving her/his secretary instructions, taking documents to the court, etc. If you have provided your lawyer with a retainer, s/he will bill “against” the retainer. This means that s/he will send you the bill, showing that s/he has paid her/himself from your retainer. When the retainer is used up, you will need to provide another one. 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 bill you on a regular basis, so you are not surprised by an enormous bill after several months.
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 worry of extra cost, but it is still a good idea to be mindful 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.
Some lawyers offer a “sliding scale” payment arrangement, meaning that they will charge you less money if you have a low income. Justice Net, 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 to be accepted on this basis by a lawyer.
Is there contingency billing in Ontario?
Yes. Contingency billing has been permitted in Ontario since December 2002. However, it 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.
Note: Even in a contingency billing arrangement, the client will almost always have to pay disbursements on an ongoing basis. Be sure you enter into a signed contract with your lawyer, so you know exactly what the terms of your arrangement are.
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 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 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 Ontario Women’s Justice Network article, Tips for Working with a Lawyer.
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
General Legal Information on Family Law
Legal Aid’s Toll-Free Telephone Services
Legal Aid Ontario’s toll-free number 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. 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 issue and determine if you are eligible for summary legal advice. Help from the tollfree telephone service is available Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Call 1-800-668-8258 (or 416-979-1446 in Toronto) to get legal aid help in over 120 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 counsel
- full 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, and Sarnia. Find the FLSC near you.
Family Law Information Centres and advice lawyers: Family Law Information Centres 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.
Family Law Information Program: If you are entering the family court system for the first time, the Family Law Information Program is a free online service that gives you basic information on the family court process, legal definitions and more.
Interpretation and Accessibility Services
Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT)
Information and referral services pertaining to disability issues. Also has services for women in abusive relationships.
Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada www.avlic.ca Website has a directory of interpreters in Ontario.
Canadian Hearing Society
Offers Ontario Interpreting Services and other accessibility services.
TTY: 1 877 216 7310
Tel: 1 877 347 3427
Services and community referrals for Deaf children, youth, adults, and families.