What are the options when a woman is managing her case on a limited budget?

What are the options when a woman is managing her case on a limited budget?

Many women who have experienced violence have very limited resources for their family law case. Even when a woman has a job that pays her reasonably well, she is not likely to have enough financial reserves to pay a retainer to a family law lawyer, especially if she is also looking for housing and incurring the many other costs associated with the end of a relationship.

There are ways a woman can get at least some legal representation even if she cannot afford to pay a lawyer to handle her full case and does not qualify for a traditional legal aid certificate.

Legal Aid Ontario services

Legal Aid Ontario’s financial eligibility test for people experiencing domestic violence has increased. As well, LAO has some flexibility in cases involving intimate partner abuse with respect to property.

Even if it does not appear a woman meets the financial eligibility test, it is worth a call LAO to discuss the situation, as there may be a way in which LAO can provide some support and assistance.

Summary legal advice:

People can obtain family law summary advice over the phone, if they qualify financially. This can include general information about separation or divorce, custody, access, support and family court process.

Women can find out if they are eligible for summary legal advice by calling LAO’s toll-free number: 1-800-668-8258, Monday to Friday between 8 am and 5 pm.

For more information about LAO’s summary legal advice services:

Contribution agreements:

Depending on a woman’s financial situation, she may be able to receive a legal aid certificate subject to a contribution agreement. This means that LAO will cover her legal costs but she will have to repay some or all of those costs. How much she has to repay and on what schedule will depend on her income. This is set out in the contribution agreement that she will sign.

A woman who wishes to explore this option can call LAO’s toll-free number: 1-800-668-8258, Monday to Friday between 8 am and 5 pm.

For more information about contribution agreements, how payments are made and what a woman can do if she is unable to meet the terms of her contribution agreement:

Fee for service arrangements

Traditionally, people have hired lawyers to handle their entire family law case: all issues and all steps in the process. In this arrangement, the person pays a retainer to the lawyer, which is a sum of money given the lawyer before s/he begins any work on the case. The lawyer puts this money in a trust account and takes from it only when s/he bills the client.

For example, in a family law case, a lawyer might expect a retainer of $5,000 – $10,000, depending on the hourly rate s/he charges and the complexity of the case. After the lawyer has done a certain amount of work, or perhaps on a monthly basis, the lawyer will issue a bill to the client and then transfer that amount of money from her/his trust account to her/his general account. While the money is in the trust account, it does not belong to the lawyer; once it is in the general account, it does.

When the remaining retainer becomes quite small, the client is required to provide more funds to be placed in the lawyer’s trust account.

Very few lawyers will start a case without a retainer.

However, increasingly, lawyers realize that many people cannot afford to pay for legal representation for all their legal issues or for every step in the legal process. As a result, some other methods of offering family law representation have come into practice.

Summary legal advice

Some lawyers may be prepared to offer summary legal advice to a client. For example, a woman who is thinking about leaving her abusive partner may want some basic information and advice about her legal rights and responsibilities.

She could ask a lawyer for one or two appointments, which she would pay for as they happened, for this purpose. She is not retaining the lawyer, and the lawyer is not starting any family proceeding, completing any paperwork or going on the record for her with the family court. She may or may not ask the lawyer to represent her later, if she decides to proceed with a case.

Or, a woman may be partway through her case, handling it without a lawyer, but may want to get some legal advice about one specific issue. She could ask a lawyer for an appointment for this purpose.  As with the earlier example, she is not retaining the lawyer and the lawyer is not completing any paperwork or going on the record for her with the family court.

Legal Aid Ontario’s 2-hour Family Violence Authorization Forms give women who cannot afford to pay a lawyer for summary legal advice the opportunity to receive this service in the areas of family and immigration law.

For more information about these forms:

Unbundled services/ limited scope retainers

Unbundled legal services/limited scope retainers provide another alternative for a woman who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent her through her entire case.

Here, the lawyer provides assistance with only part of the case. For example, perhaps the woman is seeking custody of her children as well as child support. She feels the child support aspect of her case is relatively straightforward and that she can handle it on her own, but she is very concerned about the custody issue because her partner has threatened repeatedly that he is going to take the children away from her.

If the lawyer accepts limited scope retainers/provides unbundled legal services, she can hire the lawyer to represent her on the custody issue only. The lawyer is not responsible for anything associated with her child support case.

Or, perhaps the woman is handling both aspects of her case on her own, but wants a lawyer to assist her with her Settlement Conference. Under this system of unbundled legal services/limited scope retainers, she could hire a lawyer for this purpose only. Once the Settlement Conference is over, the lawyer’s responsibilities come to an end.

To minimize the possibility of confusion, when a woman hires a lawyer for only part of her case, as described in the examples above, the lawyer must provide a written agreement that clearly identifies what services the lawyer is providing and/or what legal issues the lawyer has been retained to work on. The agreement would also set out the fee that the woman is to pay the lawyer. This could be either an hourly rate or a set fee to complete a specific task.

For more information about limited scope retainers/unbundled legal services:

Family court fee waivers

If you are working with a woman who cannot afford to pay family court fees (for example, for a divorce application), you may be able to assist her in having all or part of the fee waived. Fee waivers are not available for family mediation services or, with limited exceptions, for service of documents.

A woman can request a fee waiver before her case begins, at any time during her case or at the enforcement stage.

To qualify financially, her primary source of household income must be one of more of:

  • Ontario Works
  • Ontario Disability Support Program
  • Family Benefits Act allowance
  • Old Age Security pension together with the Guaranteed Income Supplement
  • War Veterans Allowance
  • Canada Pension Plan benefits

OR, her household income and assets must fall under a certain level, which is based on the number of people in the household:

1 person: maximum gross monthly income $1,500
2 people: $2,250
3 people: $2,583
4 people: $3,083
5 or more: $2,583
Household liquid assets: $1,500
Household net worth: $6,000

For more information and to access the application forms:


In addition to the financial considerations, safety must be a primary concern. If you are supporting a woman, this is a good time to review the woman’s safety plan and consider whether any parts of it need revision or any new elements need to be developed to ensure that she is safe as possible, both emotionally and physically. If you are a woman exploring your options on your own, you might wish to contact a women’s shelter for support on safety matters. You can find services at ShelterSafe.ca.

With a lawyer who understands intimate partner abuse and is committed to providing excellent services and the support of a service provider such as a Family Court Support Worker, a woman can have a very positive experience and obtain good outcomes using these alternative approaches to legal representation.

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