Cheap Legal: The Actual Accessibility of Legal Services in Canada

legal assistance

The law is a beautiful thing. It was created to protect people, (theoretically) guarantee their rights, punish criminals, and ensure that society, for better or for worse, works.

Unfortunately, the law can be a very intimidating thing to navigate and it is one that we must because, like it or not, it will affect us. Say you got a parking ticket you feel is unjustified, or your landlord won’t turn the heat on in -30 Celsius even though heat is included in your rent, or you bought something that broke after one day and came with a guarantee that the seller won’t honor. These are all things you could get screwed on if you don’t know the law. A lawyer can often help.

Lawyers provide legal advice, informing you of the best options in a given situation and encouraging you to make what they think is the best decision based on the information they’ve been given. A lawyer will act on your behalf and unlike say, a friend or relative, they are legally obligated to do what is in your best interest and in accordance with your wishes.

Failure to do so is against the law and could result in penalties, loss of their license by the Bar Association, or even invalidity of anything the lawyer did in your name. This gives lawyers even greater incentive to act in your interests.

Lawyers, however, are expensive, charging minimums of a hundred dollars an hour just to inform you that you DO have rights in a given situation and most of us don’t have that kind of money. We are in a recession, and most of us have to settle for jobs that won’t allow for the luxury of hiring an attorney, either because it’s too expensive or because employers know people are desperate for work and they are all too ready to fire someone for taking time off to tend to their rights.

Luckily, that does not mean that our rights are unaffordable. There are ways around exorbitant legal fees and lawyers’ schedules, especially if you’re comfortable making decisions and just need a little more information to do it.

There are scores of non-profit organisations that are willing to provide legal information for free. The first and most obvious place to look is the internet. Websites like Educaloi and Legalline.ca will have free legal information on a variety of subjects, and all of Canada’s laws are accessible online.

Project Genesis (genese.qc.ca)
Project Genesis (genese.qc.ca)

Project Genesis in Montreal will happily provide information on Landlord/Tenant issues and access to government services. Head and Hands and many YMCAs will also provide free or inexpensive legal services.

Law schools in Canada often have legal clinics run by students that provide information at little to no cost and are usually open to the public. A phone call to your provincial local Bar Association will get you names of lawyers who will accept legal aid. In Quebec legal aid has opened up to allow an increasing number of people to qualify for its assistance.

Need to go to Small Claims Court but are not sure what to expect? Try the Small Claims File Preparation Assistance Service, a pilot project recently launched for Small Claims Courts in major Quebec cities that provides referrals to lawyers that will help you on small claims issues for a fixed fee ranging from $150 to $250, something that might be worthwhile considering that claims of up to $15,000 fall under Small Claims Courts’ jurisdictions in Quebec.

Which brings up another question: does your situation require the services of an attorney?

In criminal matters, it is best to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  Émilie Le Huy, a lawyer working in Montreal, said that even lawyers won’t typically represent themselves in matters that have potentially grave consequences.

When your liberty is on the line, you’re probably better off getting a lawyer to represent you. They know the proceedings back to front, how to negotiate with the prosecutor, and how best to address the judge. They are therefore in the best position defend you.

What many people don’t know is that lawyers often hang out outside the criminal courts offering advice for free in the hopes of gleaning more clients. In civil matters, if you have a lot of money riding on the outcome of a case or set of negotiations and you don’t know what you’re doing, a lawyer is also a good idea.

But if your landlord, for example, is not fulfilling his end of your lease and you need to send him a warning letter and want help writing it, a legal information clinic or non profit organisation is the way to go. Think you’re being screwed out of government benefits? There are scores of non profits that love sticking it to governmental organisations.

If you bought a product that broke on you after the first day and want to ask the company for your money back but are not sure how to do it, feel free to Google the consumer protection laws of your province or even take a quick look at an article written by a lawyer on the subject. By publishing the article and making free for all to see, the author just gave you free legal info. Minor matters are probably best taken care of at minor cost.

Navigating the legal system can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. You have the power to exercise your rights when you need to without paying an arm and a leg. All it takes is a little info.

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