Law: How to Find and Pay for Legal Help

by Gilda Spitz

Are you planning to buy your first house or condo in Canada? Do you need to protect your family’s future by setting up your will? Are you in some legal trouble and need help? For situations like these, you need to talk to a lawyer.

It sounds like a simple thing, but finding legal help can feel like an overwhelming task. And it can be scary for a newcomer because you may not know where to start and – even more importantly – you may not know about the fees. So here is some handy information about legal services and aid in Canada.

In the legal system of Ontario, you can find legal help in several ways, depending on your specific problem and the amount of money you can afford to pay:

  • Find a lawyer in private practice, and pay his or her fees out of your own pocket.
  • Apply for financial help through the Legal Aid system. If you qualify, you will receive a Legal Aid certificate that you can use to partially or fully pay the fees of a private practice lawyer.
  • Go to a Community Legal Clinic. If you qualify financially, you can find some types of legal help at no cost. But there are some problems they simply cannot handle – these will require the assistance of a lawyer in private practice.

Finding a lawyer in private practice

To find a lawyer in private practice, you can start by asking your friends and family, or ask someone at a settlement agency. It would probably be helpful to find an attorney who speaks your native language.

If you can’t find a lawyer through personal references, try the Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) offered by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Using LRS, you can find a professional who will provide you with free consultation (up to 30 minutes) to help you determine your options. You are under no obligation to hire this person as your lawyer, but if you don’t, you can’t ask the LRS for a second referral for the same legal problem.

Once you get some names, you’ll have to call their offices and ask them if they specialize in the type of legal help that you need. For example, some lawyers are experts in real estate law; others only work on family law cases.

According to James Morton, President of the Ontario Bar Association, "Choosing a lawyer is a very big decision. You always have the right to switch lawyers if necessary but it’s better to do your homework first and find the one that you feel most comfortable with." He provides some helpful guidelines:

  • Find a lawyer who seems interested and enthusiastic about helping you.
  • For legal situations that might end up in court, find someone who is "careful and cautious" because it’s always better to settle out of court if possible.
  • Contact the Law Society of Upper Canada, and ask if this lawyer has ever been disciplined for any reason.

Legal Costs

Most lawyers (but not all) offer a free consultation. It’s important to ask for an estimate of what the work will cost. Keep in mind that, in addition to fees, you may also have to pay for expenses such as faxing, photocopying, or ordering official documents. Also, if you are going to apply for Legal Aid, as described later in this article, you must find out if the lawyer accepts Legal Aid certificates, because not all of them do.

The way you pay a lawyer in private practice depends on the situation. Sometimes they charge a set fee for a particular task. For example, the set fee for buying or selling a house in Toronto is usually about $600. "Shop around," explains Morton, "because if you receive a quote that is greatly higher or lower than that, you may have a concern about that lawyer." For other services, lawyers can charge an hourly rate that in Toronto runs from about $175 to $375 per hour, according to Morton. If your legal case goes to court, and you are likely to win a settlement, the attorney may charge a contingency fee. This means that you don’t pay an hourly rate or set fee, but if you win, you will have to pay the lawyer a percentage of the amount of the settlement. A typical settlement fee is one third of the total settlement, but you can negotiate with the lawyer regarding the percentage.

If you use the Lawyer Referral Service (LRS), your phone bill will be charged $6.00. However, LRS is free for people in crisis situations – for example, in a shelter, in custody, or with no fixed address.

What if you can’t afford to pay a lawyer?

If you can’t afford to pay a lawyer, you can apply for financial help from the Legal Aid system, which is financed by the government. To obtain this benefit you need to qualify, based on your financial situation.

According to www.Settlement.org, people with no income or who are on social assistance are usually eligible. If your legal bill will make it hard for you to pay for necessities – such as food or housing – you may be suitable as well. Despite your personal finances, if you have relatives in Canada, you may have to prove that they can’t afford to pay your legal fees.

If your application is approved, you will receive a certificate that sets the amount of money that Legal Aid will pay the lawyer on your behalf. You may be able to get a legal aid certificate for criminal charges, family matters, refugee appeals and other civil issues.

Legal Costs

With a Legal Aid certificate, you may not have to contribute to your legal costs, but it will depend on each financial situation. The contribution can be payable while the case is progressing (for example, $100 per week) or postponed until a later date (for example, until the sale of your house is final). This decision is based on factors such as your income, your expenses, and whether you own your own home.

Sometimes you may have to repay Legal Aid, including interest, especially if you have assets such as a house. For more information on paying Legal Aid debt, go to www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/courts/interestrates.asp. If you receive money as part of a court settlement, you will probably have to repay part or all of your Legal Aid costs.

Community Legal Clinics

Community Legal Clinics are independent,non-profit offices, staffed by lawyers and community legal workers. There are 57 clinics in Ontario, divided by region, and you can go only to the clinic located in your own area. To discover which one is closest to you, go to www.lao.on.ca/en/locate/default.asp.

According to Dennis Bailey, lawyer and Executive Director of the Community Legal Clinic of York Region, these institutions exist to provide help with problems not covered by private practice attorneys. "Legal clinics don’t duplicate services of private practice lawyers for the most part," he explains. At a Community Legal Clinic, you can usually find aid for the following types of situations:

  • Canada Pension Plan
  • Criminal Injuries Compensation
  • Employment Insurance
  • Employment rights
  • Human rights
  • Immigration
  • Ontario Works and Welfare
  • Ontario Disability Support Program
  • Tenant rights
  • Workplace Safety and Insurance

Community Legal Clinics "do a lot more than just casework," adds Bailey. They also provide public education by speaking to community groups meetings, and by printing helpful brochures in many languages. The services provided by a particular clinic may vary, depending on the needs of their community, and not every institution offers all of them. But if you can’t find the assistance you are looking for at your local clinic, you may obtain it in a Specialty Clinic. These are similar to Community Legal Clinics, except that they focus their services on one area of the law or in a particular community – for example, the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. These institutions usually serve people who live anywhere in Ontario.

In both institutions, the lawyer is an employee of the clinic, and is therefore paid by the clinic, rather than by the client. Just like when you apply for a Legal Aid certificate, you have to prove that you cannot afford legal services to get help at a Legal Clinic, but their qualifying method is slightly different. If you meet the criteria for a Legal Clinic, the services are free; if you don’t, they can still give you a brief assessment of your legal situation, called "summary advice".

CNM

FOR MORE INFORMATION

In general:
Legal Services: www.settlement.org

Private lawyers:
Law Society of Upper Canada: www.lsuc.on.ca/index_en.html or 416-947-3300
Lawyer Referral Service: www.lsuc.on.ca/public/a/finding/lrs/ or 1-900-565-4577

Community Clinics and Specialty Clinics:
Community Legal Clinics: www.legalaid.on.ca/en/links/community.asp
Specialty Clinics: www.lao.on.ca/en/specialty.asp

Legal Aid:
Settlement Services: www.settlement.org (click in Legal Services)
Legal Aid Ontario: www.lao.on.ca/en/
Telephone: 416-979-1446
Toll Free: 1-800-668-8258