After years of lobbying, lawyers working at non-profit organizations would finally be able to offer more than legal information and be able to practise law following the tabling of a bill by the Quebec government.
In a development widely lauded by the legal community for significantly improving access to justice, lawyers at non-profit organizations would be able to provide legal advice and opinions as well as represent clients in court for free or at low-cost under Bill 34, An Act to improve access to justice by broadening the range of legal services provided free of charge or at a moderate cost.
“It’s an important turning point in our profession as it allows for better access to justice for citizens,” remarked Catherine Claveau, bâtonnière of the Barreau du Québec. “The bar has been trying to get things done for years now, but it’s not that easy to get legislation changed. But after meeting with Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette last fall, he acted with diligence and it’s appreciated.”
Catherine Claveau, Barreau du Québec
According to Alexandre Plourde, a lawyer and analyst with the non-profit consumers protection organization Option consommateurs, Bill 34 could have “important repercussions” in making access to justice easier for Quebecers, particularly consumers. The organization annually receives thousands of calls from consumers seeking information about their rights and recourse they can take against business. In many cases obtaining legal information such as how to negotiate with a business to assert their rights is enough, said Plourde.
“But what we see on a regular basis is that for many other consumers, they have greater needs than just legal information,” explained Plourde. “They need legal advice. They need to be accompanied in different ways in the process, particularly vulnerable people, the elderly and people with low literacy. It is much more difficult for them to represent themselves and to assert their rights against a business. For all these people, for whom legal information is not enough, the bill opens the door to the possibility of a new initiative that would help these people to assert their rights.”
Bill 34 allows the board of directors of the Barreau du Québec and the Ordre des notaires du Québec to determine by bylaw or regulation the conditions on which a lawyer or notary may practise their profession within a non-profit organization and the kind of law they can practise. The Quebec bar has informally begun the exercise, and intends to hold discussions with non-profit organizations to delineate a legal framework. That’s what the Barreau du Québec recently did with the passage of Bill 75, which allows law students working at university legal clinics to give legal advice and consultations under the supervision of lawyers and notaries, noted Claveau. Regulations, which will were passed in April, were drafted and finalized in collaboration with educational institutions, added Claveau.
But some things are non-negotiable, said Claveau. All lawyers who practise law must be covered by professional liability insurance just as all lawyers, except for retired lawyers, must complete at least 30 hours of qualifying training over two years, added Claveau. Another firm condition is that the legal services that will be offered by non-profits be free or charged at a minimal cost, which has yet to be defined.
“In the end, we are always concerned for the protection of the public so we want to ensure that lawyers who are going to act as lawyers in these organizations meet the obligations that we ask of all our members, ” said Claveau. “And it’s important, and it’s stipulated in the bill, that the services that they will offer must not be in competition with law firms. The goal is really improving access to justice. So the services have to be offered at low cost. This is very important to us.”
Catherine Claveau, Barreau du Québec
There are some concerns within non-profit organizations that the two Quebec legal regulatory bodies will impose stringent conditions that will hamper their ability to provide legal services. Gilles Saint-Exupéry, who heads Garage Legal, a student-run legal clinic and a non-profit organization that supports the development of startup businesses, described Bill 34 as a fine but “necessary initiative” but its implementation will be just as important.
“There already is a good network of players working on access to justice and it will be essential to consult them,” said de Saint-Exupéry, who also is the CEO and co-founder of Lex Start, an online legal service platform for entrepreneurs that charges a flat rate. “This collaboration between the professional orders and the actors in the field who practise in the various clinics will make it possible to understand the real needs of litigants and those of the legal professionals who accompany them.”
Non-profit organizations have meagre financial and human resources, pointed out Plourde. New administrative and regulatory constraints run the risk of defeating the purpose of the bill and prevent non-profits from offering a wide range of legal services to those in need, added Plourde. The bylaws and regulations should not hinder non-profits from establishing new innovative business models or limit the type of clients it serves, noted Plourde.
“It’s important to have a framework that would allow us to deal with issues quickly and efficiently without undue formality,” said Plourde. “We want to be able to offer our services to the general public. So we wouldn’t want it to be limited to low income people.”
But for non-profits to be able to provide legal services, there is no doubt that the provincial government will have to provide financing, added Plourde. These organizations, who for the most part are struggling with scant financial and human resources, are already under strain to provide services to meet growing demands, said Plourde.
“Bill 34 is a very interesting step forward for us, but for it to really bear fruit, funding must also be provided to civil society organisations so that they can improve their services,” said Plourde. “We will need support from the state to improve our service offer.”
The Chambre des notaires du Québec did not respond to requests for comments.