1. What is unbundling?
- Legal services are unbundled when you hire a family lawyer or paralegal to complete specific tasks, while you take responsibility for handling the rest of your legal problem.
- Many people can afford to pay something for legal services; they often cannot afford the cost of hiring a lawyer from the beginning to the end of their legal matter.
- Unbundling (also called “limited scope retainer”) means that you work with your lawyer to break down your legal matter into a list of discrete tasks and carefully divide those tasks between you. You represent yourself and performs certain tasks while the lawyer performs others.
- Unbundling was approved by the Law Society of BC in 2008 but in 2016, few BC family lawyers offered unbundled legal services. Those that did offered them on an ad hoc basis and rarely advertised this approach. Clients still found unbundling lawyers hard to find when they needed them.
- Unbundling is one piece of the Access to Justice puzzle in Canada. It aims to make legal services more affordable for the public.
2. What kinds of legal services can be “unbundled”?
- Almost any legal matter can be unbundled.
- Examples of unbundled legal services in family matters include:
- The initial consultation meeting
- Providing strategic advice including various resolution options
- Drafting specific documents (pleadings, arguments, affidavits, Orders)
- Conducting legal research
- Appearing in court for one application/hearing
- Legal coaching on process, strategy, negotiation or participation in court
- Representation during a mediation
- Providing independent legal advice on a mediation agreement
- Drafting a separation agreement or an agreement coming out of a mediation
- Providing legal advice before, during or after a mediation session
- Organizing documents
3. Why choose unbundled legal services?
- Expert Assistance: you get the expert help you need, when you need it, at a reasonable cost.
- Affordability: by completing some tasks yourself the costs are lower than in a full-representation model.
- Flexibility: many unbundled lawyers offer approaches to suit your unique needs. For example: remote services, technology tools, various pricing options (flat fees, subscriptions or hourly).
- Autonomy: you work with your unbundled lawyer to identify what needs to be done and who is the best person for each task. You remain in control of handling your legal problem, but you still have the expert assistance you value.
4. What are the benefits of unbundling for the public?
- Increases access to justice:
- The access to justice crisis is real. Many BC families cannot afford to hire a lawyer using a “full representation model”. Others start out on their separation or divorce journey represented by a lawyer but they run out of money.
- The problem is particularly acute in family disputes arising from separation and divorce. Self-representation rates exceed 50% and some reports are of percentages in the 80% range in family court.
- Many families are either ineligible for “free” legal services through Legal Services Society family duty counsel or Family LawLine, pro bono clinics etc., or they have already used up their hours of entitlement.
- Many people can afford to pay something; they cannot afford the full representation approach.
- Price Predictability: Family members can achieve greater price certainty or predictability by negotiating fixed fees or other non-hourly billing methods that will enable them to know in advance what it will cost and budget accordingly.
- Improved Outcomes: Without some form of legal advice or representation, most self-represented parties are at a significant disadvantage, particularly in the court system.
- Increased Voice: The structured unbundling process provides family members with increased participation and “voice” in the dispute resolution process, which leads to greater process satisfaction.
- Enhanced Empowerment: Family members can experience greater involvement in and control over their legal matters. An unbundled practice model enables families to drive the course of their legal matter, leveraging only those services they truly need without feeling that they have relinquished control of their matter including price.
- Improved confidence in the process and outcome.
- Improved access to settlement processes:
- Use of unbundled legal services can facilitate informed settlements.
- It is possible that if Judges knew that parties had access to unbundled legal services to support them in a mediation process they may be more likely to refer the family to mediation.
- Access to Tailored Services: Unbundling can provide families with the kind of assistance that best meets their underlying goals. Most people want to resolve their issues quickly and effectively and unbundling can include assistance with settlement-focused processes (such as mediation and collaborative law) as well as litigation if needed. They receive services that are specially tailored to meet their needs.
- Balancing Power: Access to an unbundled lawyer assists in dealing with power imbalances in the resolution process.
5. What are the benefits for family lawyers?
- An unbundling approach offers many benefits to family lawyers. Done well, it is simple, lucrative and enjoyable. Benefits include:
- Increased business opportunities.
- New, tailored business models.
- More stable revenue.
- Managed exposure to risk.
- Improved lifestyle and satisfaction.
- A solid contribution to access to justice for BC families.
6. What are the benefits for the courts and the justice system?
- Improved outcomes for litigants (compared to those who are fully self-represented).
- Improved Court efficiency.
- Improved access to settlement processes.
- Improved public perception of the justice system.
7. How can I find a lawyer to provide unbundled legal services?
- The BC Family Unbundling Roster lists lawyers and paralegals around BC who provide unbundled legal services for families.
- Read the profile of each lawyer in your community. If there is no lawyer close by, consider using technology to get the help you need. Many lawyers also provide unbundled services remotely (using technology).
- This site also includes a Client Toolkit which provides helpful information about unbundling and how to find and retain a lawyer.
8. Why do I need a written retainer agreement?
While it is always advisable to use a written retainer letter, it is essential for unbundled (or limited scope retainer) legal services. In order to avoid confusion and future concerns and complaints, both the lawyer and client must be very clear about the scope of the services to be provided by the lawyer. This includes:
- what the lawyer will do;
- what the lawyer will NOT do; and
- what the client will do.
9. What does a written retainer letter for unbundling look like?
The Family Unbundling Toolkit includes some templates of retainer letters and schedules: http://www.courthouselibrary.ca/practice/familylaw/unbundling/ These can be modified to suit your unique situation.
10. Is unbundling appropriate for every family or situation?
- No. Unbundling may not be the best option for everyone or every type of problem. Unbundling means breaking up a complex matter into a list of tasks or activities and allocating them between you and your unbundled lawyer. You are, in effect, self-representing for those tasks allocated to you.
- Before you commit to unbundling, it is important that you ask yourself some hard questions to see if unbundling is the right option for you.
- Use the “Questions to Ask Yourself” tool in the Client Toolkit to help you analyze your situation.
11. What should I ask my unbundling lawyer during at the beginning of our relationship?
Review the “Questions to Ask Your Lawyer” tool in the Client Toolkit.
12. What do I do if I want the lawyer to take on additional work?
- Don’t assume the additional work will be done. Discuss your needs with your lawyer and, if the lawyer agrees to do additional work, amend the retainer agreement or create a new one.
- In order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion, the retainer agreement must be amended to include a careful description of the additional tasks and who will perform them.
13. If my unbundled lawyer helps me to prepare for a court hearing, and I appear in court on my own behalf, do I have to advise the court that I have received this help?
- There is no rule that requires you to disclose that you have received help from an unbundled lawyer. However, unbundling is becoming very common and in some situations it may assist the court to know that you have received assistance.
- Talk to your unbundled lawyer about requesting the help of a Support Person in Provincial Court. A "Support Person" is not an unbundled lawyer. A Support Person can be someone like a trusted friend or family member who comes with you to provide emotional support, take notes, and organize documents. Read more at these links:
 Dr. Julie Macfarlane, “Finally, Canadian Data on Case Outcomes: SRL vs. Represented Parties, April 18, 2016 https://representingyourselfcanada.com/2016/04/18/finally-canadian-data-on-case-outcomes-srl-vs-represented-parties/
 Blankley, supra.