Taking on lawyers, you can lose even when you win

By Dave Brown
Ottawa
Jun 23, 2008

For 15 years, Maureen Boldt of North Bay has been slugging it out with the Law Society of Upper Canada. She has won a few rounds and has learned the hard way that in Ontario's legal ring, even when you win you lose.

Last year, during a courthouse fight against the LSUC, she threw in the towel. She agreed to a plea that saw her sentenced to four months of house arrest and the payment of $35,000 to the society to pay its lawyers.

But the championship round isn't settled. She said from her home last week she's planning another bout, this time taking on two opponents at a time. She's inviting the law society to a rematch, and challenging the witness that helped convict her of practising law without a license.

When we first met in 1996, she had just won. The society had charged her with unauthorized practise of law. She hired a heavy-hitter Ottawa law firm and beat the law society. But the legal bill drove her into bankruptcy.

She continued as a paralegal and became a four-term member of North Bay City Council. Last year's courtroom pounding from the law society cost her a lot. There's a policy in place that a council member must resign if absent more than three months. She was under house arrest one month too long.

With time on her hands, she wrote what is likely the first textbook for paralegal studies. Don't count on it ever finding its way to classrooms. While she was fighting for the public's right to affordable legal help, the law society was lobbying. It emerged with a ticket to control the paralegal industry. In May, it issued its first licences to paralegals.

The biggest string attached is that paras can't touch family law. You can buy a divorce kit and try to handle your own divorce, but if you need help filling out the forms, you have to hire a lawyer. The society takes the view that letting anybody less than a lawyer handle a divorce is tantamount to accepting surgery from somebody who never went to medical school.

That's good advice for a couple fighting over who gets the Lamborghini and the private jet. For an average couple with a seven-year-old car still on payments, it's like spreading the ribs to get at the wallet. Tapping the resources of poor families under these conditions is a form of child abuse.

Now that lawyers are in charge, even paralegal services are going to get expensive. Paras are going to face a $500 licensing fee, an annual fee (to the law society) of $845 and colleges are tooling up to establish courses that will run two to four years. That could be opportunity knocking for somebody to write a textbook. Bet on the author being a lawyer, and the cost being beyond anything Ms. Boldt had in mind.

When a person goes into a fight this tough and stays at it this long, there's a tendency in courtrooms to describe the person as "obsessed." It's done in a way that means deranged.

How do Ms. Boldt's peers see her?

Judi Simms is president of the Paralegal Society of Canada, and she sees the pioneering North Bay woman as something of a hero. "She was guest speaker at our conference a couple of months ago."

"She is knowledgeable and well prepared."

Ms. Simms sees the law society as blind to a growing risk.

"This is going to come back to bite them. The public is getting wise. Other jurisdictions, such as Britain and Australia, are way ahead of us."

A recent report in Maclean's brings the Competition Bureau into the picture. The question is: How is this not like giving control of one hamburger chain to another hamburger chain?

Not to worry, the LSUC responded. Paralegals are now full members of the society. Paras are wondering about the definition of "full." The governing body of the law society is made up of 40 lawyers, eight members of the public, and two paralegals.

Since May, the LSUC has licensed 1,800 paralegals in Ontario. There are more than 30,000 lawyers.

A Toronto judge recently said 60 per cent of the litigants going through his courtroom are unrepresented. Legal aid is available only to those on or under the poverty line. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is on record as saying in Canada, access to justice is "not a reality."

Things aren't going to change until the laity accepts responsibility for resolving simple disputes, and breaks its addiction to lawyers.