Better Access to Better Justice: The Potential of Procedural Reform

Canadian Bar Review, Vol 100, No. 2

Improving access to justice is often identified as a goal of reforms to legal procedure. What does access to justice mean in this context? This article proposes that “better access” and “better justice” should be understood as distinct but overlapping goals. Access improves when procedural costs confronting litigants are reduced. Justice has three qualities—substantive justice, procedural justice, and public justice—which legal procedure can produce to a greater or lesser degree. Although access and justice are sometimes in tension as goals for procedural reform, they are also harmonious. Better access to better justice is a worthy goal for procedural reformers. Welfarism is introduced in the final part of the article, as a way to focus access to justice reforms and make the necessary tradeoffs. This article’s argument is illustrated by three procedural reform trends—mandatory mediation, smaller-dollar procedure, and inquisitoriality.

Full text: https://cbr.cba.org/index.php/cbr/article/view/4772

Online and In-Person Hearings: The Best of Both Worlds

Slaw.ca Civil Procedure Column, June 9, 2022

Found online at: https://www.slaw.ca/2022/06/09/online-and-in-person-hearings-the-best-of-both-worlds/

For a while during the pandemic, online hearings were the only option for courts and tribunals. Justice was done on Zoom, or else it wasn’t done at all.

Now, as we emerge from the age of Covid (knock on wood!), online vs. in-person is a recurring controversy across Ontario’s justice sector. After the Superior Court of Justice ordered most contested family law matters to return to court, a group of family bar lawyers organized in defence of the online option. By contrast, the Landlord and Tenant Board is insisting on fully online practice, while the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario states that “going digital has been a failure” and calls for a return to in-person hearings. The online vs in-person controversy is also litigated on a case-by-case basis. For many civil trials, in the absence of party consent an expensive procedural motion may be necessary to resolve the question of online vs. in-person.

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Justice at Tribunals: At the Government’s Whim

Slaw.ca Access to Justice Column, April 7, 2022

Found online at: https://www.slaw.ca/2022/04/07/justice-in-tribunals-at-the-governments-whim/

Suppose that “JM” is a Canadian person, who believes that their legal rights have been infringed. The problem might have arisen at work, at home, with a corporation, or with some part of the government. JM has tried to resolve the matter privately with the other side, but got nowhere. Next, JM did some online research and perhaps spoke to a lawyer. It turns out there is a public body that’s supposed to make decisions, and uphold rights, in disputes like JM’s.

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Justice in Your Neighbourhood?

Slaw.ca Access to Justice Column, December 22, 2021

Found online at: http://www.slaw.ca/2021/12/22/justice-in-your-neighbourhood/

I live in Etobicoke, Toronto’s western suburb. We used to have our own courts, right here in the west end. There were family and criminal courts at 40 East Mall, and a Landlord Tenant Board outpost on Dundas Street West. Just over the Humber River, in the original City of Toronto, there was a Small Claims Court on Keele Street (pictured above). People asserting civil rights, or facing criminal charges, could visit a courthouse in their own community.

Nowadays, there isn’t a single physical court or tribunal of any kind in Etobicoke.

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Collegial Reputation and Peer Rankings: An Invisible Hand?

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, January 31, 2019.

Found online at: http://www.slaw.ca/2019/01/31/collegial-reputation-and-peer-rankings-an-invisible-hand/

Suppose you have practiced law for many years in the same community. You are shown a list of other lawyers who do the same sort of work as you, in the same area. You probably have an opinion about most of the names on the list. Favourable or unfavourable impressions will have accumulated from your interactions with them on files, your observations of their work, and other colleagues’ comments to you about them.

Of course, they also have opinions about you. Your collegial reputation is the sum of the opinions about you held by others in your community of practice.

Collegial reputations are not necessarily fair or well- deserved. They may reflect prejudice or irrelevant factors, rather than the real qualities of someone’s work. Nevertheless, within professions like law, colleagues are relatively well placed to evaluate the many aspects of value that are invisible to clients. Continue reading

Measuring Legal Service Value

(2019) University of British Columbia Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 3.

This article proposes a theoretical foundation for measuring legal service value. It aims to support efforts to compare the value of offerings from different law firms, as well as alternative legal service providers.

The value of any legal service depends on (i) its effectiveness, (ii) its affordability, (iii) the experience it creates for its clients, and (iv) third party effects (the impact the service-provider has on people other than the client).

These four elements of value can be quantified through various metrics applied to firms or entities that provide a given service. Output metrics evaluate either the actual real-world impact of a legal service, or the written and oral work products of the firm. Internal metrics check for processes or structures within a firm that demonstrably support high value outputs. Input metrics focus on the attributes and credentials of the individuals who provide the service.

This article concludes that measuring legal service value is challenging, and may be dangerous if done poorly. Nevertheless, the rewards justify the challenge. Higher quality legal professionalism, more effective and less burdensome regulation, and consumer empowerment are among the payoffs if we can find better ways to measure legal service value.

Full text: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3144771

Mystery Shopping: Demand-Side Phenomena in Markets for Personal Plight Legal Services

International Journal of the Legal Profession, Vol. 25.

“Personal plight” is the sector of the legal services industry in which the clients are individuals, and the legal needs arise from disputes. This article proposes that competition among personal plight law firms is suppressed by three demand-side phenomena. First, consumers confront high search costs. Identifying competing law firms willing and able to provide the needed services often requires significant expenditure of temporal and psychological resources. Second, comparable price and quality information about firms is scarce for consumers. Both of these factors impede comparison shopping and reduce competitive pressure on firms. A third competition-suppressing factor is observed in tort legal service markets, where offerings are typically priced on a contingency basis. Contingency fees have relatively low salience to consumers, and this reduces consumers’ willingness to negotiate and comparison-shop on the basis of price. This analysis is supported by the author’s empirical research with Ontario personal plight lawyers as well as the existing literature. The article concludes by suggesting possible consequences of this analysis for regulatory policy.

Full text: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09695958.2018.1490292?journalCode=cijl20

Measuring Legal Service Value, Part 2

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Tuesday June 1, 2018.

Online: http://www.slaw.ca/2018/06/01/measuring-legal-service-value-part-2/.

What makes a great law firm? How can one quantify just how great a firm is, and compare it to its competitors? Last time in this space I suggested that legal service value has four elements (full paper here):

  • To the extent that a firm gets good legal results for its clients, it has effectiveness value.
  • To the extent that the firm’s fees are low and easy to pay, it has affordability value.
  • The more the firm’s practices minimize clients’ time and stress costs, the more client experience value it has.
  • Finally, if the firm’s work has many benefits and few costs for people other than its clients, it has high third party value.

In principle, a firm’s performance on these four elements of value can be quantified. If we could actually create accurate charts like these for legal services providers, we would have more empowered consumers, better self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses within law firms, and more evidence-based regulation. This project can also move us toward a more meritocratic legal profession, in which individual success is less dependent on racial and socioeconomic privilege.

An accurate quantification of value will require multiple metrics, and the array of metrics will depend on the legal niche in question. This column outlines three basic types of metric for quantifying legal service value: output metrics, internal metrics, and input metrics. Output metrics measure what comes out of the legal service provider. Internal metrics examine what happens inside the firm. Finally, input metrics analyze the people who walk in (or log in) to the firm each morning. Continue reading

Measuring Legal Service Value, Part 1

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Tuesday April 5, 2018.

Online: http://www.slaw.ca/2018/04/05/measuring-legal-service-value-part-1/.

If you work at a law firm, how good is that firm? If you’re a client or potential client, how good are the different legal services providers that you might choose to patronize?

It’s too difficult, at present, to answer these questions in an objective and reliable way. This is most obviously true for individual people with legal needs. They generally confront a mysterious landscape populated with apparently indistinguishable law firms, as well as proliferating alternative sources of legal services.

However, even experienced corporate clients, and lawyers themselves, lack solid information about the respective merits of different legal service providers. To evaluate quality, they must often rely on opaque, methodologically suspect rankings or else anecdotal impressions of firms.

We need better ways to quantify and compare the value propositions offered by different providers of legal services. This column proposes a definition of legal service value, and next time in this space I’ll propose and categorize metrics for quantifying it. A detailed paper on these topics is available here. Continue reading

Access to Justice Levies for Lawyers: Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Dec. 12 2017

Online: http://www.slaw.ca/2017/12/12/access-to-justice-levies-for-lawyers-putting-our-money-where-our-mouths-are/

Tyrell Moodie, accused of drug offences and facing several years in prison, was denied a Legal Aid Ontario certificate because his income of $16,211 per year exceeded the cut-off threshold. Legal aid services for refugees in B.C. and Ontario were threatened with drastic cuts in 2017. Self-represented litigants are now the majority in many family courts, mostly because people cannot afford the legal assistance that they would love to have, and legal aid won’t pay for it.

Every media story about a legal aid shortfall includes a quote from a lawyer, pointing the finger at the government for inadequate funding. However, every time the legal profession points its finger at the state, three fingers are pointing back at the legal profession. As trustees and beneficiaries of the legal system, lawyers should make a more tangible contribution to ensuring its accessibility.

I suggest that our law societies should collect mandatory “access to justice levies” from all licensees, and use the money to fund access to justice for people of modest means. These levies should be progressive (calculated based on the income of each licensee). The clinics and programs receiving the funds should be selected by the licensees themselves, through participatory democracy processes. Continue reading

Get Creative in Billing Clients for Dispute Resolution

Canadian Lawyer, November 20, 2017.

Online: http://www.canadianlawyermag.com/author/noel-semple/get-creative-in-billing-clients-for-dispute-resolution-14925/.

Most individuals looking for legal help in a dispute would love to scrap pre-paid, uncapped time-based billing, and lawyers should be open to that.

Imagine a list of clients’ top 10 pet peeves about law firms. Pre-paid, uncapped time-based billing would rank high. Why do so many firms in niches such as family law, estate litigation and employment law stick with this much-unloved system? How can these firms realistically and profitably move past it? Continue reading

Generalism and Access to Justice: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, October 6 2017.

http://www.slaw.ca/2017/10/06/generalism-and-access-to-justice-jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none/

The rise of specialization is among the biggest changes in the practice of law over the past hundred years. Most lawyers and paralegals are increasingly able to focus on a smaller number of legal niches. That is good news, for practitioners and also for clients. However, I will suggest here that generalist legal professionalism has an enduring role in fostering access to justice.

Continue reading

A Third Revolution in Family Dispute Resolution: Accessible Legal Professionalism

(2017) Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, Vol. 34, No. 1. (Peer-reviewed).

Innovation in family law firms can tangibly improve access to justice in Canada. This article develops that claim by drawing on empirical data and scholarship about Canadian family law. Part 1 explains how and why legal needs arising from the dissolution of intimate relationships are so difficult for the parties to meet.  This Part draws on civil legal needs surveys, surveys with lawyers, and data from interviews with litigants. The focus shifts to family law firms (including sole practitioners) in Part 2, using new empirical data about the Canadian lawyers who do this work. Three promising opportunities to innovate for accessibility in family law practice are identified: (i) innovative fee structure; (ii) innovative service variety; and (iii) innovative division of labour. A “third revolution” in Canadian family law is proposed in Part 3.  Our family law doctrine was revolutionized beginning in the 1960s, and family law alternative dispute resolution was similarly transfigured beginning in the 1980s. It is now time to foment a third revolution, in family law practice accessibility, to bring the benefits of family justice to all Canadians who need them.

Full text online: https://ojs.uwindsor.ca/index.php/WYAJ/article/view/5009

 

Regulating Contingency Fees: A Consumer Welfare Perspective

Invited contribution to Trevor Farrow & Les Jacobs eds., The Cost and Value of Justice (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, forthcoming 2020).

How can we preserve and extend what’s good about contingency fees, while minimizing the bad and the ugly? In order to identify the regulatory tools best suited to this challenging task, this Chapter proposes a consumer welfare analysis.

The consumers of contingency fee legal services are the individual clients, and the members of classes, represented by law firms working on this basis. These consumers, like other consumers, have interests in:

(i) quality,

(ii) price,

(iii) fairness, and

(iv) choice.

Part 2 of this Chapter will analyze these four sets of consumer interests, all of which are affected by the regulation of contingent fees. Part 3 scrutinizes various regulatory approaches to contingency fees against the consumer welfare criterion. I argue that heavy-handed interventions, such as fee caps and retrospective price review, can do as much harm as good for consumers. “Light touch” alternatives such as disclosure and standardized contracts, and fostering the “invisible hand” of the market, are preferable approaches for a regulators interested in maximizing consumer welfare.

Early draft online: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2959477.