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Where can I find a lawyer to help with my family law issue?

Where can I find a lawyer to help with my family law issue?


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September, 2015

You don't have to hire a lawyer to help you with your family law issues. But, a lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and responsibilities.

Responsibilities are what the law says you have to do after you separate or divorce and rights are what the law says you can get.

A lawyer has special training that allows them to give legal advice. Legal advice means that a lawyer can explain what the law says and how it applies to your specific legal problem. They can also:

Sometimes a lawyer is also called an attorney, barrister, or solicitor.

A paralegal is another type of legal professional, but they can't do everything a lawyer can do. For example, a paralegal can help prepare court paperwork, but they can't give you legal advice about family law or represent you in family court.

A paralegal can work for a lawyer and be supervised by them. Or, they can work for themselves.

After you separate, you and your partner should never have the same lawyer. This is because you and your partner have different rights and responsibilities and your lawyer should be working in your interests only.

In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada regulates lawyers and paralegals. This means that they:

  • have rules about who can become a lawyer or paralegal, and
  • deal with complaints against lawyers or paralegals.

If you can't afford to hire a lawyer for your whole case, you can still speak with one for general advice. Some lawyers also provide "unbundled" or "limited scope" services. This means you pay them to help you with part of your case.

If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, you may be able to find legal help in other places.

Next steps


Think about the type of lawyer you want to work with. For example, do they:

  • have experience dealing with cases like yours
  • listen to you
  • make you feel comfortable and not rushed
  • explain things in a way you can understand
  • answer your questions
  • give advice based on your situation
  • help you find an interpreter, if you need one
  • answer your calls within a few days
  • tell you clearly about their fees
  • accept a Legal Aid Certificate, if you have one
  • work with a disability you may have
  • speak a language you understand

Unbundled services

Think about whether you want to hire a lawyer who offers unbundled services. This means you can hire them to help with a certain part of your legal problem only. For example, to help you prepare your court documents.

This option is useful if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer to help with the whole legal problem. Or for example, if you hired a lawyer to help with your problem, but now don’t have enough money left to keep paying them. Unbundled services can also be called limited scope services, unbundled legal services, or legal coaching.

A lawyer that offers unbundled services usually divides all the things they would usually do for a client into smaller, separate steps or items. You can hire them to only do the things that you decide you need the most help with.

Unbundled services can be:

  • Legal advice: meeting with a lawyer to get advice on what your legal options are
  • Preparing documents: a lawyer prepares your documents, for example, a court application or a separation agreement
  • Appearances: a lawyer represents you in legal situations, for example, at a court hearing, or at a case conference
  • Coaching: a lawyer guides you through the court process, or explains how to submit evidence

Lawyers who offer unbundled services usually charge a flat fee. You may have to pay this fee before they help you. Usually you don’t have to pay any other deposit or retainer.

Some lawyers have websites that say if they offer "unbundled" or "limited scope" services. Others do not, but if you ask them, they may be willing to offer it to you. The National Self-Represented Litigants Project website also has a directory of lawyers that offer unbundled services.

Here are some ways to find a lawyer:

Law Society of Upper Canada

The Law Society of Upper Canada has a Directory of all lawyers and paralegals who are licensed to practice law in Ontario. The Law Society also has a Directory of Certified Specialists who focus on family law.

Law Society Referral Service

The Law Society of Upper Canada also has a Law Society Referral Service. This online service gives you the name of a lawyer in your area who can give you a free consultation for up to 30 minutes. You can ask for a lawyer who speaks your language, or a lawyer who accepts Legal Aid certificates.

You can also call them on a crisis line at 1-855-947-5255 or 416-947-5255 in Toronto, if you're unable to use the online service. For example, if you're in a shelter or in a remote community without access to the internet. The line is available from Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

You don't have to hire this person as your lawyer. But, you can't ask for a second referral for the same legal problem.

Family and friends

If you choose a lawyer that a friend or family member used, remember that everyone's case is different.


When you meet with or speak to a lawyer on the phone, remember that you're interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

You can ask the lawyer things like:

  • their experience in family law cases and how they would handle your case
  • how the law affects your situation
  • the choices you have
  • how long they think your case will take
  • what their business hours are
  • how they let you know about the progress of your case, for example, by telephone, mail, or email
  • what you should do next
  • community services you can contact for information or help

Find out what the lawyer’s fees are. Ask questions like:

  • what your case will cost
  • how they will charge you
  • what could cause the cost to increase
  • how you can keep the cost down
  • if they offer unbundled services

You should also tell the lawyer about any needs you have like:

  • finding an interpreter
  • disabilities
  • safety concerns

Based on your conversation, decide if you want this person to be your lawyer. Your lawyer should be someone you can work with and trust.

Generally, all the conversations you have with your lawyer are confidential, even if you decide not to hire them. This means your lawyer can't talk to others about what you have said without your permission. This includes talking to your partner. But, there may be exceptions where the safety of your child is an issue.


You should prepare for your first meeting with your lawyer.

Be ready to provide details about you, your family, and your story. Most family law lawyers will ask for your date of birth, your partner's date of birth, when you and your partner started living together, and names and dates of birth of any children.

You should also:

  • make a list of questions you have
  • think of what solutions you would like
  • bring your Legal Aid Certificate, if you have one

Be clear with your lawyer about how you want your issues resolved. Ask your lawyer if they think what you want is realistic. You may have to change what you want based on what your lawyer tells you.

Bring copies of important paperwork with you. Make sure you keep copies for yourself. These may include copies of:

  • any written agreements that you and your partner made
  • any court documents that you received or prepared
  • your last pay stub
  • financial documents that show you and your partner's assets and debts, like property, credit cards, lines of credit, mortgages, bank accounts, and investments
  • income tax returns, notices of assessment, and any notices of reassessment for the past three years for you and you partner

Lawyers are required to check the identity of their clients. This means you will have to show your lawyer photo identification, such as a driver's license or passport.

Generally, all the conversations you have with your lawyer are confidential, even if you decide not to hire them. This means your lawyer can't talk to others about what you have said without your permission. This includes talking to your partner. But, there may be exceptions where the safety of your child is an issue.


When you hire a lawyer they usually ask you to sign a retainer agreement. A retainer agreement is a written document that says what you're hiring the lawyer to do and how you're charged for the lawyer's services.

You can hire a lawyer to represent you on all issues resulting from your separation or divorce. Or you can hire a lawyer for a specific task, like helping you prepare for trial or preparing for a case conference. If you only want help for a part of your case you have to hire a lawyer who offers "unbundled" or "limited scope" services.

Lawyers usually charge an hourly rate. They may also have other people helping them on your file who charge a different rate. For example, they may rely on another lawyer, paralegal, or a law clerk for help with your case.

The retainer agreement should have these details. It should also say if there are fixed fees for specific tasks like a half-day or daily rate for going to court.

Lawyers usually also charge for other expenses, such as photocopies and court filing fees. These are called disbursements. You should check what the retainer agreement says about these types of fees.

A retainer agreement might also have other details, such as:

  • how you and your lawyer will communicate
  • if and how your lawyer charges you for emails and telephone calls
  • when you will be charged for services

You should ask about anything you're not sure about or don't understand.

Make sure to get a copy of your retainer agreement for your records.


Lawyers usually ask for a deposit before they agree to start work on a file. This is sometimes called a retainer.

If your lawyer asks for a retainer, you might want to ask:

  • how much work the deposit is expected to cover
  • if they can work out a payment plan if you're not able to pay all of the deposit at once

Make sure to get a receipt to show the amount that you paid.

If you have a legal aid certificate, this means that Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) pays a lawyer to work for you. If your lawyer accepts your certificate, you might not have to pay a deposit.

Most legal aid certificates say what work and the number of hours LAO will pay for. You may have to pay for services and hours that are not covered by your certificate.

Tax deduction for legal fees

You can deduct legal fees on your tax return if you paid them to:

  • collect late child support and spousal support payments
  • figure out the amount of support owing
  • get and enforce a support order
  • try to get an increase in the amount of support

To claim a deduction on your taxes for your lawyer's fees, you must show how much of your lawyer's bill went to your support claim. Tell your lawyer right from the start to keep track of how they spend their time. This will make it easier for you to see what you can claim on their bill.

Your lawyer can also give you a letter for Canada Revenue Agency that clearly shows how much you spent on support.

You should speak to a tax professional if you want to deduct legal fees on your tax return.

You can't deduct legal fees on your tax return if you paid them to get help with:

  • separation or divorce
  • custody
  • access
  • dividing property

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