Canada's 'one family, one fee' model helps couples avoid divorce

Canada's 'one family, one fee' model helps couples avoid divorce

Calgary lawyer Melissa Bourgeois had been practicing family law for more than a decade when she had her 'light bulb moment'.

After years of helping couples navigate amicable divorces - divorces where spouses aren't actively fighting, but simply choosing to go their separate ways - Ms. Bourgeois heard about a unique legal service being offered in Britain. In contrast, Low-conflict separating couples had the opportunity to hire just one lawyer to act for both parties.

The concept at the time was untested in Canada, where conflict-of-interest laws have traditionally dictated that each divorcing spouse must retain their own lawyer, Ms. Bourgeois said.

But she suspects it could work here too.

A 2021 survey by Canadian Lawyer magazine found attorneys charge an average of $1,860 in legal fees for an uncontested divorce, with couples agreeing on the divorce and the terms of separation. The process can take anywhere from four to six months, and usually requires each spouse to hire their own independent legal counsel.

As soon as one spouse disagrees with the other on anything from who gets the house, to alimony, or child support, the divorce becomes a contested one.

The companies typically charge by the hour for every e-mail, text or phone call required to obtain two warring spouses to an agreement. Canadian Lawyers found that the average fees charged for contested divorce in Canada range from $20,625.

In her experience, Ms Bourgeois said that many couples actually want to set acrimony aside, if the outcome is a swifter and more cost-effective agreement. So she chose to seek advice from the Law Society of Alberta to offer what she calls her 'one family, one lawyer, one fee' model as a first-of-its-kind-in-Canada pilot project.

This permission was granted at the end of 2021. Her firm, One Family Law, has helped about 40 couples since January of this year untie the marriage, with each couple paying a flat $5,000 fee for a start-to-finish process that takes no more than six to eight weeks.

One of those relationships, Edmonton's Bryan Sali and his ex-wife, recently ended their 15-year marriage with Ms. Bourgeois's help.

We tell our daughter that we still love each other, we just love each other differently, Mr. Sali said.

Sali said he's seen friends spending tens of thousands of dollars and waste multiple years hashing out their divorces through lawyers and the court system. Even these friends, he added, all their goodwill they felt toward their former spouse evaporated as the proceedings dragged on and the bills mounted.

He added that he is grateful that he and his ex kept things as simple and amicable as possible.

Mr. Sali said he did not think he had enough resources to make the meeting a success.

Many divorced couples won't be on the same page about everything, even if the decision to separate is mutual, said Kevin Caspersz, managing partner of Toronto-based family law firm Caspersz Chegini LLP.

Representing both sides of a matter, that's something you always have to keep in mind, he said.

Even for those who aren't suitable for a one-lawyer model, there are other ways to avoid the costs and stress of traditional litigation, he said.

A neutral third party, for example, helps the spouses reach a mutually agreeable settlement that can then be taken back to each spouse's lawyer for independent legal advice.

Caspersz said he would not be able to comment on the decision, but said he was satisfied with the decision.

Bourgeois said that any relationship where there is an evident financial or power imbalance is not suited to a simplified, one-lawyer model.

The majority of separating couples today sincerely want to make the best of a stressful situation so that they can move forward with minimal financial and emotional scars, Bourgeois said.

In many cases, the spouses still plan to be parents together and simply need help navigating the legal system to make their plan official.