It is not uncommon for a woman to experience difficulties with her family law lawyer.
The lawyer may not understand the unique dynamics in a case involving family violence. They may be good at the legal aspects of their work but not so good at communicating. They may not explain their fee arrangement well. They may appear to brush off the woman’s safety concerns related to her former partner. The women and her lawyer may have strongly held and different opinions about how to manage the case.
In these kinds of situations, a woman may wish to change lawyers and/or make a formal complaint about her first lawyer.
There are reasons to do both, but there are also reasons to be cautious about doing either.
- Changing lawyers will slow down the case and add to the costs, as the new lawyer will need to take time (which the client must pay for) to review everything that has happened to date and to generally get up to speed with the case.
- If the client’s unhappiness with the first lawyer was really about the case and not about the lawyer, she may find herself just as unhappy with her new lawyer.
- If she is paying for her new lawyer with a legal aid certificate, she may not be permitted to change lawyers at all.
Making a formal complaint about a lawyer warrants careful thought. It is not generally a good idea for a woman to make a complaint about her lawyer while that lawyer is still acting for her. The complaint will have a negative impact on the lawyer-client relationship, which could affect both the progress and outcome of the woman’s case. This is not to say a woman should not make a formal complaint if her lawyer’s behaviour warrants it; just that she should consider the timing carefully.
Attempt to resolve the problem
In most situations, before a woman either changes her lawyer or makes a formal complaint, she should attempt to resolve the problem with the lawyer. You can assist her with this by:
- Reviewing her concerns with her and helping her prioritize them
- Helping her assess which concerns are likely to be resolvable
- Helping her think about anything she can do to improve her working relationship with her lawyer
- Suggesting she put her concerns in writing so she can refer to her notes when she is talking with her lawyer
- Building her confidence for her meeting with her lawyer
- Accompanying her to the meeting and advocating on her behalf as she has asked you to do
- Debriefing and strategizing with her after the meeting
When to complain
There are some situations where a formal complaint is likely a good idea:
- Acts of discrimination by the lawyer
- Harassment, abuse or violence by the lawyer
- Improper billing or use of client’s retainer by the lawyer
- Refusal by the lawyer to follow client’s instructions
- Criminal activity by the lawyer
Of course, in the case of criminal activity such as assault or sexual assault, the woman can go directly to the police herself, instead of or as well as filing a formal complaint.
The complaint process
The Law Society of Ontario (until recently, called the Law Society of Upper Canada) was created in 1797 to govern the province’s lawyers and paralegals. It regulates, licenses and disciplines lawyers and paralegals practising in Ontario.
The complaint process is relatively straightforward:
1) The person making the complaint completes the complaint form, ensuring to provide:
- Their name and contact information
- The lawyer’s name and address
- Detailed information about the actions or behaviour that form the basis of the complaint
- Copies (not originals) of all relevant documents
- Names and contact information for witnesses, if there are any
2) The person then mails the complaint to:
The Law Society of Ontario
130 Queen Street West
Toronto, Ontario M5H 2N6
3) The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) will send a letter confirming that it has received the complaint.
4) If further information is required, the LSO will contact the person making the complaint. The LSO will also provide updates as to the progress of the complaint.
5) When the complaint has been resolved by the LSO, a letter outlining the outcome will be sent to the person who brought the complaint.
The lawyer will be notified of the complaint so they can respond with their perspective.
Complaints should be initiated within three years of the date the problem occurred or the date the person became aware of the problem. There are some limited exceptions to this, which the person should discuss with the LSO.
The LSO reviews and assesses every complaint it receives. A further investigation is conducted if there is “a reasonable suspicion” that the lawyer may have engaged in professional misconduct or conduct unbecoming a lawyer or may be incapacitated.
The process is confidential unless it leads to a discipline hearing.
Possible outcomes of a formal complaint about a lawyer include:
- The LSO offers to work together with the person and the lawyer to resolve matters
- The complaint is closed with no steps taken
- The lawyer is provided with guidance to improve their behaviour in the future
- There is a formal prosecution, hearing and penalty
- The LSO reports criminal activity to the police
If the person is unhappy with the outcome, they can ask the Complaints Resolution Commissioner to review the case.
The length of time it takes to complete the complaints process depends on the facts of each situation.
Links on the Law Society of Ontario website
- Complaints specific to the lawyer’ fees/billing: The process is slightly different. Note that fee complaints must be started within one month of the client receiving the lawyer’s bill.
- Specific information for First Nation, Metis or Inuit people
- General information about the complaints process, including an online, downloadable version of the complaints form