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Friday, October 22, 1999

Lawyer fees 'astronomical,' Supreme Court judge says
Binnie suggests courts could exert power to curb costs
Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

OTTAWA - A Supreme Court judge has warned that lawyers charge so much money for their services that the courts might have to step in to curb costs.

The swipe at the legal profession, which is often the butt of jokes about greed, came from Mr. Justice Ian Binnie, who was a powerful Bay Street lawyer before he joined the Supreme Court early last year.

Judge Binnie is one of several senior figures who have denounced high legal fees because they put justice out of reach for many Canadians, including the middle class, who can't afford their day in court.

But Judge Binnie went a step further by suggesting the courts can rein in "astronomical" legal fees.

"As one recently in private practice I am staggered at the amount of money law firms can burn up in addressing issues. You can burn up thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars unnecessarily and it becomes a deterrent to going to court," he told law students this week at the University of Ottawa.

"It should be possible for somebody who is neither very wealthy nor on legal aid to go to court to get an answer to a question that is important to that individual and not have a system which is so cumbersome, protracted and expensive that they are actively deterred."

Although he didn't elaborate on how the courts can control fees, judges do have the ability to alter costs through a little-known provision that allows them to review and revise fees when a client complains.

Barry Gorlick, past president of the Canadian Bar Association, said legal fees are determined by the market and can range from $65 an hour for junior legal help to about $500 an hour for powerful Toronto firms. He said prices have not increased much in the last decade and have probably not kept pace with inflation.

An uncontested divorce, for example, cost about $500 in the late 1970s and has only increased to about $750 today, he said.

However, the bar association, mindful that legal fees are too expensive for many Canadians, is encouraging the profession to offer more free services.

"Lawyers are stepping up to the plate and trying to do work that is non-remunerative, that's important, that's often times for persons with disabilities or persons who just don't have other means and wouldn't be covered by any legal aid plan," said Mr. Gorlick, a Winnipeg lawyer.

In Manitoba, for instance, lawyers are encouraged to offer legal help in landlord-tenant disputes, which aren't covered under legal aid, he said.

Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry agreed earlier this year that lawyers should spend more time helping people who can't afford lawyers in light of a "growing phenomena" of litigants appearing in court without lawyers.

Judge McMurtry called on the profession to adhere to a new bar association policy, which came in to effect last year, suggesting lawyers devote either 3% of their income or 50 hours a year to pro bono work for those who can't afford counsel.

Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin, who is considered first in line to replace retiring Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, has also delivered speeches over the years saying lawyers only have themselves to blame for their reputation of greed and must make their services more accessible.

The late John Sopinka, who, like Judge Binnie, was elevated to the Supreme Court straight from Bay Street, took on the legal profession after he became a judge, saying the drive for profits by many Canadian law firms threatens the legal profession and the public.

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