Family lawyer v. Self Representation
The number of self-represented family law litigants going through the court system has risen sharply in the past decade. I would guess that the reason is similar to the number of for-sale-by-owner homes; people have access to much more information on the web and as a result are able to more effectively self-represent as an alternative to engaging a family lawyer.
So what are the circumstances where a family lawyer is appropriate, and when should try and go it alone? I will canvass this issue briefly in this post. There is one caveat: I am, to a certain extent, a family lawyer, and also employ two other family lawyers. Conflict of interest disclosed and noted!
Use the free 30 minute consultations to your advantage
First of all many family lawyers will offer a free 30 minute consultation. There is no reason why someone facing divorce or family law issues should not avail themselves of these opportunities. You can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes if both the client and the lawyer are prepared for the meeting. There is further nothing stopping you from visiting a few different family law lawyers to get second and third opinions, and to see if there is a “fit” anywhere. Ask the question: Do I really need a family lawyer?
After the initial consultation you will have to consider your options. A typical family law retainer is going to be between $1,000 and $3,000. Some lawyers will bill off this retainer from the start, others will hold the retainer in trust until the matter is resolved. So under what circumstances should you law out the cash, and when should you try and go it alone?
Typically family law lawyers add the most value when there is either high conflict between the parties, or if the matter has multiple issues and is complex. If the parties get along reasonably well and only have one or two issues to resolve this is an instance where you can self-represent and save on legal fees.
If you do decide to self-represent you will typically end up with a separation agreement. It is always a good idea to take the agreement and have a lawyer review it and provide a certificate of independent legal advice. This provides an extra layer of protection if one of the parties attempts to set aside the agreement down the road to make changes to it. It is very difficult to set aside an agreement where someone has had the opportunity to receive legal advice. There have also been situations where agreements have been patently unfair simply because the parties weren’t aware of how family law operates in Ontario.
If your matter involves children, complex financial matters, domestic violence, or if you simply want the peace of mind that something is being done right, then you should probably engage a family lawyer. The reality is that if you are going through a separation there is likely already a significant amount of stress resulting from that change and that stress is detrimental to you overall well being. You simply can’t replace the years of studying, experience, and continuing legal education that a lawyer receives by searching the internet. I have also come across people who are their own worst enemy and sometimes having an agent can help expedite a resolution much more quickly and peacefully than would otherwise be the case.
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