We have been discussing access to justice and family law reforms for a very long time. That’s a good thing. Times change and so should we.
Apparently, along with family law reforms, we have also been talking about legal insurance plans (also known as LIPs and/or legal expense insurance) for a long time. In 1997, for example, the “Report of the Ontario Legal Aid Review, A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services” suggested that Legal Aid Ontario had the “potential . . . to work with prepaid-legal-plan providers to improve access to a limited range of legal services either through public legal education about available schemes or by actually participating in service delivery under a prepaid plan.”
Basically, legal insurance plans are exactly what they sound like — insurance that covers legal expenses. There is a variety of plans available ranging from full coverage to legal advice over the phone. Some are stand-alone plans while others are add-ons to your existing home or auto insurance.
Legal insurance plans are supported by the Law Society of Ontario.
The LSO website states that the law society “believes that legal expense insurance is a useful insurance product with the potential to make legal services more accessible and affordable for people who don’t qualify for legal aid.”
The LSO came to this conclusion after University of Toronto Faculty of Law professor Michael Trebilcock released his “Legal Aid Review 2008.”
He, too, concluded that LIPs were a worthwhile endeavour.
“Legal information and advice for the working poor and middle class of Ontario represent a means of providing limited amounts of service to a very substantial number of people,” he said.
“In many cases, limited service simply will not suffice. One unexplored method of providing access to justice is legal insurance.”
By 2010, after a few years of study, the LSO decided that LIPs are “viable products.”
The problem was that, outside of Quebec, few knew anything about them. In addition, insurance for family law matters was non-existent, likely because the volume of claims would be high.
Today, the market has started to open up. The good news is that family law matters are now included in the plans.
So, why haven’t we seriously talked about this as a viable option for middle class litigants in our family courts? I believe there are multiple reasons for this.
1. It’s the marriage contract conundrum. Who wants to get family law insurance when you have a relatively happy marriage?
2. As unlikely as it may seem to family lawyers, there is still a stigma around separation/divorce. People may be reluctant to buy legal insurance for family matters.
3. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. Both the federal and provincial government needed to approve legal expense insurance. From what I can ascertain, LIPs didn’t really become available in Ontario until 2010.
4. The public (and, frankly, family lawyers) lack knowledge about the plans. This is likely because plans simply weren’t offering legal insurance for family matters until recently.
We need to start thinking more seriously about legal insurance and how it fits into our access to justice discussions. As lawyers, we should ask clients if they have insurance. If they don’t, we should suggest that they look into it. And, family lawyers, you may want to look into becoming a “participating” or “co-operating” lawyer. I believe that legal insurance plans are a worthwhile option for family litigants that we need to explore further. Let’s start including LIPs in our access to justice discussions.
patti cross is a family law lawyer. This article reflects the personal views of the author.