A Criminal Mind: What is JusticeNet and how will it affect your practice?

JusticeNet, at justicenet.ca, is a Canada-wide non-profit service that connects low-income clients with lawyers who will accept their cases on a reduced-fee basis.

Its motto is “Lawyers making justice more accessible to Canadians.” It handles the traditional legal aid areas such as criminal law, family law, and immigration, as well as some cases generally not covered by provincial plans.

Some of the other areas include alternative dispute resolution, bankruptcy, business law, consumer rights, employment matters, estate planning, real estate, and tax.

In Ontario and no doubt in other provinces, there has been a gap in civil litigation, something that JusticeNet will handle.

This national program helps individuals whose net family income is less than $59,000. Lawyers agree to take on cases at rates ranging from $100 per hour to $150 per hour, but this program differs from legal aid plans in that they have to get the money themselves.

At the same time, these hourly rates aren’t tied to the lawyers’ seniority but to the clients’ income.

The $100 to $150 hourly range is the standard rate fee schedule. There’s also a special case fee schedule. Lawyers who agree to take one of these cases reduce their fees significantly. In all cases, a client’s eligibility is at the sole discretion of the lawyer.

A directory of lawyers is available online. There’s also a hotline number for the public at 1-866-919-3219. In Ottawa, 14 lawyers have signed up.

Some senior defence counsel in Toronto have joined as well. A search of JusticeNet’s site shows that the plan is in its early stages with few lawyers participating outside major centres in Ontario.

This will probably change rapidly. JusticeNet is actively contacting lawyers to invite them to sign up.

One question for lawyers is how the different legal aid plans across Canada will interact with JusticeNet and how the program will affect their practices and solicitor-client relationships.

The site indicates that clients should apply for legal aid first. A client of ours attended at a legal aid office but wasn’t actually assessed and was referred to JusticeNet rather than back to us to work out a retainer.

So if a lawyer hasn’t signed up for this plan, there’s a chance that the client may end up seeing another defence counsel.

JusticeNet is privately funded. I spoke with its executive director, Heidi Mottahedin, who said that while she’s funding it herself, the Ministry of the Attorney General is planning to support it in the future.

The annual registration fee for lawyers is $150 plus HST, but the organization is waiving it for the time being.

The plan is a wonderful resource for the public but it will require lawyers in certain areas of the law to be cautious before taking on matters. Criminal and family law lawyers, for example, are undertaking potentially lengthy and complex matters in accepting cases.

The web site recommends the use of a standard retainer agreement for all clients with disclosure of the lawyer’s actual rates as well as the reduced fee. Accepting one case from a client doesn’t oblige the lawyer to take another matter or expand the services offered.

We should commend Mottahedin for funding this program at its early stages. As a criminal practitioner, I hope that referrals to JusticeNet won’t inadvertently disqualify eligible people from provincial legal aid plans because many clients of modest means really can’t afford a lawyer even at $100 an hour.

Rosalind Conway is a certified specialist in criminal litigation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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