Edmonton Journal

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Is price of justice rising out of reach?

Legal costs behind trend toward people arguing own cases:

LAWYERLESS LITIGANTS: IS JUSTICE BEING SERVED?

Gordon Kent, Legal Affairs Writer
Edmonton Journal

After spending $30,000 on her divorce, Dawn Baribeau decided she had better ways to use her money than hiring a lawyer for the fights over child access.

So Baribeau, like an increasing number of Canadians, is arguing the case herself.

"Why pay for somebody to say what I'm going to say anyway?" she asks after a recent appearance in Court of Queen's Bench.

"The lawyer, basically all he did was he took everything I said and went into court and repeated it. I thought, 'I paid you that kind of money for that?' "

Judges and legal experts are concerned that more and more people are representing themselves in court, a trend they feel is clogging the justice system and can lead to the inexperienced sinking their own cases.

They pin most of the blame on stratospheric legal costs. A survey last fall in Canadian Lawyer magazine showed the price of a wide variety of criminal, civil, family and corporate matters rose an average of five to 10 per cent from a year earlier.

"Most lawyers start their price at $150 an hour. For two hours, they just made $300," says Baribeau, who studies law enforcement at Grant MacEwan College. "Then it's $50 per page for every document they draw up. I have a computer at home. I could do that at home. It's no wonder they try to (encourage) getting a lawyer."

Eric Macklin, president of the Law Society of Alberta, admits legal fees are beyond the reach of some working people, especially those who don't qualify for legal aid.

He estimates a junior litigation lawyer might charge $100-$125 an hour, while the hourly rate for a senior specialist can reach $350.

On top of that, if you lose your lawsuit you face paying part of the other side's costs, which can bump up your total tab by about 50 per cent.

Macklin insists it's simply the free enterprise system at work. "I think lawyers essentially charge what the market will bear. Members of the public have to shop around, just like they shop around for mechanics."

Greedy lawyers are the butt of as many jokes as dumb blonds, but they insist the fat-cat stereotype is unfair.

Rising expenses and stiff competition mean only a relative handful of big names take home the huge paycheques, they say. Many criminal lawyers charge by the case, not the hour. They often work more hours than they bill.

Local lawyer Phil Lister calculated in an October 2000 court application that it costs at least $81,000 a year for one lawyer with a secretary to run an office in Edmonton.

"Are you going to tell the landlords not to charge as much to lawyers so they can charge their clients less?" asks Jean McBean, senior counsel for the legal-aid family law office.

Still, judges have repeatedly warned that the legal profession is putting itself out of the reach of the middle class.

In 1999, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ian Binnie suggested courts could rein in "astronomical" legal fees. Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Allan Wachowich thinks lawyers may have "out-priced" themselves in criminal matters.

Legal aid is supposed to fill the gaps, but government cuts have reduced services and made it harder to qualify in many parts of the country.

Budgets aren't as tight in Alberta. While legal-aid society spending dropped by more than one-third during 1992-95, to $19.7 million, it's expected to rise to $33.1 million this year, the highest amount in the society's 29-year history.

The number of people receiving coverage has gone up steadily over the last decade, to 33,800 in 2000-01.

However, the proportion of applicants accepted has gone down from 82 per cent a decade ago to 74 per cent last year, even though income limits have been raised to keep up with inflation. Someone whose family of four makes more than $32,604 a year generally isn't eligible.

Even then, anyone getting help has to repay what they receive if they can do it without hardship.

McBean says the working poor are falling through the cracks. She thinks governments should spend more to increase the legal-aid guideline incomes and make more people eligible.

"There are many people who clearly can't afford lawyers and don't qualify for legal aid who would benefit from legal representation," she says.

"It's involved with how much the government is giving to legal aid, and right now they're cutting back on everything."

A further spending hike for the program isn't in the cards, Alberta Justice spokesman Bart Johnson says. In addition to raising guideline incomes five per cent last year, the hourly legal-aid fee paid to lawyers has gone up from $61 to $80 by 2005.

"We just came to a five-year legal-aid agreement (last spring) and there are no plans to revisit that," he says. "In a perfect world, I suppose we could all have access to free legal representation, but it's a question of what's available and what's appropriate."

As for Dawn Baribeau, she plans to continue fighting her own courtroom battles. It isn't just the money -- she thinks as a layperson judges pay attention to her.

"When I went into the court by myself without the lawyer, I got better results. They listened more," she says. "I still feel like I can hold my own."

DISORDER IN THE COURT

Judges and legal experts are concerned that a trend toward people handling their own court cases is putting a spoke into the wheels of justice. It can bog down courts, hurt the chances of the unrepresented party, and cost you money.

-Y´Saturday: Lawyerless litigants throughout North America.

-Y´Today: Why is it happening?

-Y´Monday: Solving the problem out of court.

© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal