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Rise Women’s Legal Centre Story

This is a story about Rise Women’s Legal Centre and how “unbundling” legal services have allowed Rise to help more women with their family law disputes.

Rise is a non-profit organization providing free family law services for low-income women through a legal clinic staffed by upper year law students from UBC’s Peter A Allard School of Law. The pilot project is now beginning its third year.

The project came together quickly for a May 2016 launch. According to Rise’s Executive Director, Kim Hawkins, “The weeks following my hire consisted of setting down tracks even as the train was already barrelling down them.” The staff were barely in place when the first cohort of students arrived, and the Law Society officially approved Rise’s name only days before opening.

It was only then that Kim turned her mind to what the students would be doing. She recalls a sinking feeling as she wondered how to keep the students busy while waiting for clients: “Without any clients, we had nothing for our students to do after orientation. How would we keep them occupied?” As it turned out, there was no cause for concern. The clinic was inundated with women wanting help. A week after opening the clinic was already running a waitlist.

Due to overwhelming need, it quickly became clear that full representation services for every client, often known as “general retainers”, would not be practical at Rise.  By providing full representation to everyone who wanted it, the clinic would have reached capacity in its first term; the clinic would not have been able to continue accepting new clients, and student clinicians would have been overwhelmed by complex, lengthy cases.

Kim and her staff found a solution in unbundling, an approach in which the students and staff at Rise work to assist the client, but only take on some the responsibilities for the file, leaving other parts to be dealt with by the client herself. This has allowed Rise to identify what work is reasonable and appropriate for a student, and agree to deliverables or tasks that can be completed so that the clinic can close files and can keep its waitlist – which often approaches 150 women – moving. Rise staff and students focus on court orders and agreements that stabilize and protect the client.

Kim confirms, “The ability to unbundle our services is an important part of our model”. Although Rise clients typically receive no-fee services, Kim sees unbundling as an important shift for family law practitioners generally, since it allows for the exploration of new fee structures, and in particular flat fees for specific tasks. For clients with tight budgets predictability is important, and flat fee structures may help clients to plan for the cost of legal services more effectively.

The staff lawyers at Rise warn that unbundling will not work for everyone, however. Kim explains that women who are experiencing family violence, or who have barriers in terms of language or literacy, for example, often need full legal representation throughout their case. She voices her concern that unbundling legal services should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution to access to justice or a way for justice stakeholders to avoid providing full representation where necessary. Vandana Sood, Supervising Lawyer, adds that the majority of women who come to Rise would not be able to afford private lawyer fees, even in the case of unbundled services – legal fees are often simply too high for many women to effectively access a lawyer, even on a limited retainer.

The staff at Rise are working to share best practices with others in the family law field and find ways to responsibly implement unbundling to ensure that clients get better access to the help they desperately need.

If you’d like to know more, please contact Kim Hawkins, Executive Director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre at info@womenslegalcentre.ca.