by Nathan Morris, LLB Law, Graduate Entry
In 2020 I faced a supremely important Family Law case that would determine the parenting time schedule and primary caregiver status of my 6-month-old son Beowulf. This will be a story about how I could not find the legal help I needed and what actions I am taking as a result.
His mother and I felt differently on how parenting time and decision-making rights should be divided. I felt let down by aspects of the judicial system as we tried to use the Family Law Courts to establish parenting time and decision-making rights. I will spare readers the personal details but will relay my experience of navigating the court process.
Legal Costs are Prohibitive
I had trouble finding the right legal support to fit my budget and schedule. I earned too much to qualify for legal aid, yet definitely did not earn enough to afford to pursue the case with a family law lawyer. Some free legal clinics allowed short consultations, but it was almost impossible for them to learn about my situation or devote time to anything other than a template solution. Without exception they urged me to settle, even for less time that I felt was in my child’s best interest, because the costs to pursue the case to trial would be prohibitive, and the time before I could get a trial would be a year plus. I met with dozens of law firms and the lowest cost I could find to pursue a trial was $300 an hour with a junior associate and a $20,000 retainer to start the process. Feeling stuck in a middle ground financially I decided to self-litigate.
Legal Education is Inaccessible
Another reason I decided to self-litigate was that family law was going to be very relevant to me and my son. I should learn and become competent in family law, not only to save on legal fees but to take our success or failure into our own hands.
I sought out a legal education. Only one of five Vancouver Universities teaches law. Law classes at the Allard Law School of the University of British Columbia would not be available to me unless I met the entrance requirements. I was urged by their admissions officers to do another year of undergraduate classes to raise my GPA, use an additional year to take and retake the LSAT just to MAYBE meet the entrance requirements for a CHANCE to be accepted to the law school. UBC lists an acceptance rate of just 7.5% of applications, applicants who know ahead of time the GPA and LSAT standards, which I would very likely never meet.
I feel the 7.5% number massively understated the much larger number of people who would seek to learn the law in BC, and smartly don’t apply because of the entrance standards. There is an access to legal education crisis in Canada. The time, effort and money needed just to get into law school makes learning the law prohibitive to me and most Canadians. This is why we see so many Canadians in your law classes at Sussex.
In the suggested best case, my child would be 4 years old before I could sit in on my first family law lecture. He would be 8 years old before completing my legal training. This timeline was unacceptable to me.
Self-taught I litigated my own case and was able to win 50/50 parenting time with my son at 18 months old. A settlement 6 months before the established precedent of a child being 2 years old before going to 50/50 parenting time with both parents without a voluntary breastfeeding mother. An outcome no lawyer or legal aid council told me was worth pursuing. It took a massive personal effort and a huge sacrifice to my business, but I am now a happy and fulfilled father again. I love my son and actually admire a legal system that ultimately worked for family justice in my opinion.
I now feel a duty to serve other families in crisis, particularly with very young children. I feel the legal system is so complicated and expensive that many parents feel unable to fight for their children. Children and families are ultimately the victims of this complexity and affordability crisis. I believe there needs to be reform in family law and the help families can receive, from more access to lawyers and assistance from paralegals and non-lawyers.
I feel there is a significant problem in access to legal education and that there is a connection between the supply of legal education and the costs that prevents access to justice.
Law is taught more broadly in the UK. Most who want to study law are able to at the undergraduate level. The University of Sussex has hundreds of Canadian Law students and offers Canadian Law Modules to serve us upon our return to Canada.
My decision to attend the University of Sussex for Law is founded on a mission critical, to serve these two aims, and effect change in Canada in access to education and family law.
I am writing a separate research-based blog article for the LaPSe Blog of the Law, Politics and Sociology Department. This will focus on the access to legal education problem and its effect on access to justice for Canadians.