I am writing to publicize a serious issue with the Law Society of British Columbia, relevant to the access to justice crisis which has plagued Canada in recent years:
- Lawyers are too expensive for most Canadians. Give more work to paralegals
- B.C. law society sidelines paralegal access-to-justice initiative
- B.C. justice system ‘heading towards a crisis,’ in need of reform: report
- Should lawyers have a monopoly over the provision of legal services?
Just to give you some context, I have a background as a paralegal, and recently earned my law degree from the University of Victoria. I am not a practicing lawyer, but frequently work with lawyers to provide low-cost legal services. I am often approached by people in need of legal assistance, some of whom are unable to afford the cost of counsel, or cannot find a lawyer who is willing to help them. When no lawyer is willing and able to assist, there are times when I have felt ethically compelled to help marginalized individuals who would otherwise have no way of accessing the justice system.
Over the years, I have occasionally worked with people who are defending minor regulatory charges such as traffic tickets. British Columbia’s Offence Act permits me to do this, and provides that an accused person may appear “by agent,” which reflects a public policy decision by the legislature to facilitate access to justice. In most cases, traffic tickets are punishable by modest fines of between $100 and $300. Legal aid is never available, and the average cost of hiring a lawyer is $4,185 for each day in court. Numerous courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have interpreted the phrase “by agent” to mean that non-lawyer agents can assist self-represented individuals.
I recently learned that I am under investigation by the Law Society of British Columbia. They claim that I am engaged in the “unauthorized practice” of law, something which I vigorously deny. In fact, I have always been careful to tailor my activities in accordance with the law.
In my view, the Law Society’s conduct is inconsistent with the federal Competition Act, and represents a serious threat to access to justice. I have therefore filed a complaint with Competition Bureau, a copy of which can be accessed here.
Remarkably, the day after I submitted my Competition Act complaint, the Law Society wrote to me demanding that I sign an undertaking which would not only prevent me from assisting self-represented individuals, but would also prohibit me from providing legal services “through any other entity.” To sign such an undertaking would effectively destroy my career as a paralegal and consultant for lawyers. I have informed the Competition Bureau of this latest development, and am told that they have referred my complaint to the Monopolistic Practices Directorate for investigation.
More to come…