Justice Cafe on Main Street

Last week I ran into a lawyer friend in the Supreme Court in Vancouver. She was gowned for trial, just like I was, so I assumed she was conducting a trial that week. Turns out that her client couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer for his five-day trial, so my friend was hired for one-day only to cross-examine her client’s wife in a divorce case.

My friend’s role in her client’s case is just the tip of an emerging trend in legal services called “unbundled legal services” or “limited scope retainers”. It is no secret that scores of people in British Columbia just can’t afford to hire a lawyer. This phenomenon has led to a court system where a significant share of the cases being argued are presented by in-person litigants. Litigants with no lawyer.

The challenges these cases present are numerous, particularly where both sides to a dispute are acting on their own. Unlike Provincial Court, where the process is simplified with lay litigants the norm, the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal are a morass of rules and procedure, not the least of which is trying to figure out complicated rules of evidence, involving hearsay, opinion evidence, documentary evidence and so on.

However, with government coffers stretched so far that legal aid funding is almost extinct, and lawyers who provide many hours of pro bono services working to the max, unbundled services may well be the answer for those whose income and assets are not sufficient to pay a lawyer to do the complete job.

A law firm in Atlanta, Georgia recently announced the opening of their street front office, calling it “Justice Cafe”, where recent law graduates, many of whom are now unemployed, and retired lawyers will provide legal advice in family law and divorce matters for walk-in clients who will pay $75.00 an hour. Half of the hourly fee will go to the lawyer and the other half will go to the law firm to cover their operating expenses and hopefully, a small profit.

Michael and Shelia Manley will convert a dress shop about a block from the courthouse into a community law office, opening in December 2012. They will serve free coffee and offer free wireless access, while lunch can be purchased at the next-door lunch counter. They are hoping their storefront will attract some of the more than 60% of Georgia residents who do not have a lawyer during their divorce.

If their business model succeeds, they intend to cover their office walls with artwork done by lawyers and invite lawyers and law students to “jam” on a small stage in the store, with tips for their musical talent donated to free legal clinics.

Sounds like an idea whose time has come.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang