In light of tough economic times, Toronto spouses in family law cases are increasingly pursuing alternative options in pursuit of affordable legal advice.  Though it would certainly be ideal to retain an experienced family lawyer for all aspects of a highly contentious custody or support action, tight budgets may  preclude access to the full complement of a divorce lawyer's legal services.  As a result, spouses with limited financial means will often decide to go it alone and represent themselves on a family law case.  

What many of these spouses don't appreciate, however, is that it doesn't have to come down to a choice between full legal representation or no representation at all.  There are, in fact, many alternative options open for clients looking to find affordable family law advice.  One such option is to find a Toronto family lawyer who is willing to "unbundle" their legal services. 

The "unbundling" of legal services entails a highly circumscribed role for the family lawyer, one that ultimately controls the spiraling of legal costs beyond what a client can afford.  For instance, if you are representing yourself on an application to vary a spousal support order, though you might consider yourself competent and sophisticated enough to gather the information and documentary evidence you will need to file your court submissions, you nevertheless might not have a sufficient grasp of the legal principles that will likely be engaged in your situation. 

What if your legal arguments lack the proper legal foundation?  How can you most effectively evaluate the true strengths and weaknesses of the evidence you'll be putting forward?  Your relative lack of practical and academic experience in family law may put you at a further disadvantage if your ex-spouse, on the other hand, has retained a family lawyer to handle full carriage of their application. 

Under such circumstances, you might find it prudent and comparatively affordable to retain a family lawyer on a strictly limited retainer, to provide legal services only for those tasks that you find most necessary to make your case, having regard to the kind of skills - or lack of skills - that you're bringing to the table. 

If, for instance, you are a fairly competent and persuasive writer, you might not need a lawyer to draft what would otherwise be an expensive factum; you might, however, require their legal services to research the case law you'll need to support your arguments.  You might even require that they draft you a memo of legal arguments that you can subsequently employ in your factum. 

The key is to realize that, with family lawyers, representation need not be an all or nothing proposition when legal costs are at issue.  A relatively tight budget need not result in a total denial of your access to affordable legal services.   What you need to appreciate is that you can negotiate with a lawyer as to which specific tasks you require from them. 

The tasks should be clearly described and set out in the retainer agreement.  If your finances are too uncertain to risk an open-ended billing arrangement based on an hourly rate, ask the family lawyer if they can quote you a fixed fee for completing the required task.  With a fixed fee, your family lawyer might set aside a certain number of hours to complete the task, after which the retainer may be exhausted and your relationship with the lawyer will be at an end. 

That is what is meant by the "unbundling" of legal services.  In a family law context, a lawyer who offers unbundled legal services on a task-by-task basis will often insist that they will  not be considered as your lawyer of record.  In other words, though they may assist you with certain tasks within their ambit of competence, once they have completed the work, their name does not go on any file or court submission.  All correspondences and notices from the other side are to be addressed to you, not to the lawyer who was retained for just a strictly limited legal service on your behalf.  In sum, though the family lawyer may have assisted you on a strictly circumscribed task, you should still consider yourself - and will be considered as - self-represented in such circumstances.

Some lawyers are reluctant to offer unbundled legal services to self-represented clients in complex family litigation matters, due to the possibility that misunderstandings may arise between lawyer and client as to the overall highly customized nature of the solicitor-client relationship. It is, after all, a relatively unusual kind of relationship that departs considerably from the norm in which a lawyer takes full carriage of a family law case, with open-ended  billing based on an hourly rate.

In the end, you should appreciate that there is indeed flexibility to choose the kinds of unbundled legal services and billing arrangements that you require from a family lawyer - and that your relationship with the lawyer is ultimately governed by the terms of the retainer agreement that you will negotiate with them. 

So long as you properly understand your own legal needs and what you require most from a lawyer on your self-represented file - based on  your assessment of your skills and sophistication level -  a tight budget need not wholly shut you out from accessing affordable legal advice for your family law case. 

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The preceding article has been offered as general information only, on an as-is basis, for your enjoyment and enlightenment, and should not be relied upon or taken as legal advice.