Innovations that could improve access to justice

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This model provides legal assistance to an eligible client very early in the justice process, reducing complications arising from delays in getting legal advice and facilitating early solutions to legal problems.

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Dispute resolution coaches, working with one party, or mediators, meeting with parties together, help to resolve a conflict by supporting the parties as they work out a settlement for themselves. Sometimes court-ordered, sometimes arranged privately by the parties.

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Duty counsel are typically available to an unrepresented person the day he or she appears in court. Duty counsel help the person understand the legal process and their choices. However, duty counsel often work with 30-40 people in a day. Expanded duty counsel services are available to eligible people early in the justice process to settle and divert cases from court, if appropriate.

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This model combines public legal information services with summary legal advice. For instance, an eligible client might be loaned a videotape to screen and given print materials to read and then could see a lawyer for a limited time to get advice. For example, a divorcing spouse might prepare a draft child support and custody agreement which the lawyer would then review. 

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Not all client problems require a lawyer to be an advocate in the adversarial process or for in-court representation. Sometimes, most of a client’s needs may be met by other professionals, such as mediators, who can assist with conflict resolution, or public legal educators and paralegals, who can provide information about the justice process or explain the purpose of a legal document. The informed client can then ask for legal advice on specific points.

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This model addresses the lack of access to justice that some citizens face because of a lack of access to services to meet their basic needs. For example, a legal assistance program links clients to other services such as free childcare services near the court house; a public transit day-pass so that the person can get to court; mental health and counselling services to assist with underlying personal issues; and, employment counselling.

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When lawyers assist a client, who otherwise would not have access to legal advice and services, by taking on cases on a pro bono (free) basis, the costs of disbursements – court filing fees, expert witness expenses, etc. – remain. A pro bono disbursements fund pays these expenses when a lawyer is doing pro bono work for eligible clients. This removes the financial burden from the client or the pro bono lawyer and increases the likelihood that a lawyer will act pro bono and the amount of pro bono work a lawyer may take on.

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Instead of working for free for an in-need client as pro bono counsel, a lawyer works for a greatly reduced fee.

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Lawyers take on a case for a non-legal aid client at the legal aid rates. Legal aid rates are lower than the usual rates the lawyer charges other clients.

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Some legal aid programs, for instance, Legal Aid Alberta, require clients to repay legal fees over time. In effect, a re-payment program provides legal services at legal aid rates when needed by a client with a repayment plan over the long term.

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These funds assist eligible clients with a civil law case. The up-front costs of the litigation are paid through a loan from the fund. The loan with interest must be repaid at the conclusion of the litigation. In some schemes, the repayment is geared to the litigant's ability to pay.

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Courts may order the capping of a party’s legal fees (the most the court will award in costs to be paid by the losing party to the winning party) to enable a party to go forward with a case without fear that the court costs will be overwhelming.

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Private-sector companies, some operating at no cost to users, provide online services to allow disputing parties to make confidential settlement offers and demands, and decide on the division of property and other types of agreements. In most situations, the back-and-forth goes on without the involvement of a mediator or other third-party neutral.

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Legal insurance may be purchased by individuals from insurance brokers. Costs begin at around $50 a month. The insurance generally covers a variety of personal claims such as consumer rights, property matters, though not home purchases and sales, and income claims from private or public programs. The program may include telephone consultations and legal representation up to a fixed amount per year. See, for example, the legal insurance program in Quebec which is supported by the Barreau du Québec, www.legalinsurancebarreau.com.  

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Access to legal services is a benefit under a collective agreement for union members and their families. Legal advice and representation may be provided by a staff lawyer or a lawyer who has agreed to work at the rates set by the program administrator. Some programs will also cover the costs of a lawyer who is not connected to the program up to a certain amount. See, for example, the Canadian Autoworkers Legal Services Plan, www.uniforlsp.com.

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Instead of having a lawyer handle all aspects of a file from start to finish, changes in professional rules of conduct allow a lawyer to make an agreement with a client to restrict services to specific tasks, relying on the client to do the rest. A clear retainer agreement setting out the work that the lawyer is undertaking is essential.

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Rather than funding legal aid work on a case-by-case basis, a legal aid plan could provide block funding. Through a bidding process, a lawyer or a law firm agrees to take on a fixed number of cases for a fixed fee. This reduces administrative expenses and brings some predictability to a lawyer's legal aid practice.

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In this situation, a litigant asks the court to recognize the validity of the case and to award partial payment of costs before the end of proceedings. This advance money helps to cover the costs of litigation for a party that could not otherwise afford to go to court, or to continue with the case on appeal. In Canada, courts have supported ordering costs for a litigant before a final ruling in a few cases, most often in matrimonial property litigation and in some trust, bankruptcy and corporate cases, and in cases where the litigant is challenging public policy.