Legal Assistance FAQ
Originally posted by Uriel on lawstudents.ca, 17 Jun 2009
1. Can you provide me with free legal services?
2. Can you provide me with free legal advice?
3. Can you provide me with free legal information?
4. My matter is very small in nature; will you take my case as 'practice' for real lawyering?
5. Where else can I receive free or cheap legal advice?
6. Notwithstanding the free advice and assistance available, why do lawyers generally cost so much money? Do they always? Do they even care about my problem?
Can you provide me with free legal services?
1. No. It is against the law for any person who is not a lawyer or licensed paralegal to provide legal services. Last time I checked, only a few licensed lawyers visit this site. They may assist you, but there are much better ways of getting the attention of qualified lawyers who will provide free or cheap information.
Can you provide me with free legal advice?
2. No. Most of us on this site are university students hoping to go to law school. Those of us that are law students are desperately unqualified to provide advice. Those of us that work in legal clinics or pro bono organizations have to run everything we do by a lawyer because we're so likely to have gaps in our knowledge. Asking us for advice is like asking a Biology student to take a look at an infection. Yes, we have the general concept of how infection works, but we sure as hell don't know how to clear it up. Even if we did, we couldn't write you a prescription.
The same thing goes for law students. Early in our careers, we learn how the law works -- not what the law actually is, let alone how to actually go to court and get your rights defended. Also, just for good measure, if we provide you with legal advice, and you rely on our advice, the following happens:
a ) We are taking on full liability for whatever damage you suffer. That is, if you rely on our advice and get stuck with a $50,000 bill, we are responsible for it. That's not just a technicality -- someone can and will come knocking on our door for it. Obviously no reasonable person would take on that kind of liability for free over the internet, law student or not.
b ) We can get thrown out of our provincial Law Society for holding ourselves out as qualified when we're not. The effect of that is, even if we finish law school, we will now never become lawyers. It's like practicing medicine without a license, and the Law Society takes that very seriously. All of us here have worked very hard our entire lives to become lawyers, and you're asking us to take a real chance of losing it all because we chose to give you poor, uninformed advice that probably won't even help.
c ) You lose your case because we have no idea what we're doing.
Can you provide me with free legal information?
3. Actual law students in some provinces are allowed to provide legal information as long as it does not amount to advice. This is a lot less helpful than it sounds, and it doesn't even sound all that helpful. What it basically amounts to is, we can read what the law says out loud to you. (Since we're not licensed, though, there's no guarantee that we've found the right law to read. For example, when someone asked me what the law was about liability for selling a dog that turns out to have a disease, I looked all over the place to find a dog-selling law. It didn't exist, so I figured it was just basic contract law. I was wrong; dog-selling is covered by the Sale of Goods Act, which means a whole different bunch of buyer's rights. If I'd given legal advice to my friend, she would have been out $2,450. If I would have "read the law out loud" to her before I caught my mistake, she would have come to the conclusion that she was out $2,450. Either way, a free call to a lawyer hotline service would have saved her a lot of money.)
My matter is very small in nature; will you take my case as 'practice' for real lawyering?
4. We can't do that. Even if we wanted to -- and we really do want to, which is why the Law Societies had to make so many rules stopping us from handing out bad advice! -- a judge wouldn't recognize us if we came in to represent you. She'd report us to the Law Society. It's like a med student walking in to an operating room with a sick friend and a bone saw. Everyone in the whole hospital is going to ask what the hell they think they're doing.
Of course we could 'use the practice', but we'd be practicing something we haven't been trained for, and you might lose an arm and a leg in the process. When we do 'practice', we do it under close supervision for community organizations that provide help for people that are being deported, imprisoned, evicted, etc. The difference there is, a lawyer is helping you and we're just support staff. He'll do the surgery, we just hand over the sponges.
Where else can I receive free or cheap legal advice?
5. Access to justice is something that lawyers and Law Societies take very seriously and stress out about on a regular basis. I know it might not seem like it from American TV shows, but we spend a huge amount of time, money and ink trying to figure out how to provide legal services to everyone as cheaply as possible. I'll discuss this further below. Law is a profession, just like medicine, and we want everyone's rights to be protected just as much as doctors want everyone to live long and healthy lives. They work on your insides, we work on your outsides.
What we do have in most provinces is a hotline where you can talk to a paralegal for some quick advice and a referral to a lawyer if your case warrants it, or if you would like to speak to one. In most places it's free -- in some it can cost between $6 and $30.
British Columbia: Lawyer Referral Service, $25 for half hour consult; Family LawLine, free for low income persons, and the new MyLawBC for free basic documents involving family, wills, and mortgage issues.
Alberta: Lawyer Referral Service, free for the first half hour
Saskatchewan: Law Society Of Saskatchewan - contains links to Pro Bono Law and Legal Aid.
Manitoba: Free Phone In and Lawyer Referral Program, free general information and lawyer referral
Ontario: Lawyer Referral Service, free referral to a lawyer who will provide a free half-hour consultation
Québec: Reference Service by Region and Specialty (French website), cost varies by region but is often $30 for a half-hour consultation
Newfoundland and Labrador: Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland, "nominal charge" for a half-hour consultation.
New Brunswick: Family Law Information Center, a website resource.
Nova Scotia: Lawyer Referral Service, half hour consult for $20
Prince Edward Island: CLIA PEI, $10 plus tax for a 30-minute consultation
Yukon: Law Society of Yukon, $30 for a 30-minute consultation
Northwest Territories: Lawyer Referral Service, free consultation
Nunavut: Law Society Lawyer Referrals
Notwithstanding the free advice and assistance available, why do lawyers generally cost so much money? Do they always? Do they even care about my problem?
6. When I came to law school, I thought the same thing everyone thinks -- lawyers love money and bill as much as dentists do because they can. I've been very surprised at how passionate most lawyers are about trying to help as many people as possible. Again, like doctors, when you have a skill that can heal someone, it makes you feel great when you can give them their life back and pull them through a crisis. It feels terrible when you have to admit you can't.
Here's the problem.
Corporations are willing to pay lawyers an obscene amount of money because good legal advice will save them more than they stand to lose from having lousy advice. Because of this, some law firms make a lot of money. Because of that, legal resources and education are incredibly expensive. The resource companies charge whatever they can actually get, which is a lot. Access to a good legal database can cost as much as buying a new luxury car every year. Books and journals that keep lawyers updated can cost hundreds of dollars a month. A law student has to put in at least seven years of schooling when they could be working, racking up debt that approaches six figures and never making a dollar of their own until they're 30. Lawyers have to pay staff (paralegals, clerks, receptionists), overhead (lots of printing and court costs, pens, pencils, internet...), they have no pension built up from being in school for so long, and so on.
What that amounts to is that in order for lawyers even to make a living above their huge debt and enormous operating expenses, they have to charge a high amount. No one likes it. Small-practice lawyers hate that they have to bill $180 an hour just to take home $40 an hour. (Note that although $180 is high, it's billed in six-minute chunks; your whole case might only take two hours of billable work.) We're working on free alternatives to the big corporate databases and the journals and reports. We're finding ways to cut down court costs, and we're trying to get something like medicare running so that everyone can just swipe their Social Insurance Card to get free legal advice, but I'm sure you can imagine how complicated and expensive it's going to be to get the government to agree to that. We really are trying everything --- it feels great to save someone, and contrary to popular belief, we are constantly frustrated that we can't do it more easily, and more often.
Finally, it just looks bad. Ask a carpenter to fix your roof for free, and he can point out that he's going to have to come in and do actual work. You can see that work happening, and so no one expects to get some for free. The trouble lawyers have is that no one sees them work. In many cases, we put our hours in years before you came into the office. Advice is the only thing we have to sell. It's how we make our living. It seems easy -- we have an answer; why don't we just tell you what it is? Well, it's because getting the answer wasn't cheap. We know it because we trained for eight years, spent a fortune on books and databases, and spend hours every night reading unthinkably boring books so that we can know the answer when you ask. It seems so easy -- you know the answer, just tell me what it is! It's not going to cost you anything! But, you see, it already has. It's cost us an awful lot, and it's going to cost us even more tonight to have the right answer tomorrow, next week and next year. And in almost every case, whatever question you have is going to require us to spend quite a few hours in the library, researching every part of your messy real-life problem and putting together hundreds of pages of documents. That isn't cheap, and it isn't easy.
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In summary, call a lawyer! It's cheap (or free!) to call, and they do want to help! If it was expensive just to talk to a lawyer, then lawyers everywhere would be out of business because no one would talk to them. Poke your head in an office, make a call, and be up front about the fact that you only have $X to spend. Lawyers are clever; that's their job! They'll figure out some way to match the amount of work they do with the amount you're in trouble for, or that you're able to pay, and they will work something out with you. If you can't afford them, they'll let you know, and they will be in the best position to direct you to the resources you will need to pursue the matter yourself or with duty counsel. And if you don't like the price, walk out! Don't be afraid of them -- just look at this site. A good chunk of us are good-natured goofs. We're not going to change all that much in the next three years, but at the end, we'll be the good-natured goofs in a law office. And we'll be looking forward to helping you then just as much as we wish we could help you now. Good luck!