Thomas Dart, Partner, Family Law

When a family unit starts to breakdown, the financial ramifications are already hard enough to handle without throwing into the mix the cost of the professional services required to finalize the parenting, property, support and a myriad of other issues. The wedding may have cost $50,000 but the divorce can cost far more than that if both parties feel like ‘fighting’ with each other. 

We have addressed the ways you can keep your legal costs down in other blog articles – for example, doing the work yourself with the help of a mediator. But what if your ex-partner won’t go to a mediator and you have to get some legal help. One answer is to seek out a law firm which will offer “limited scope retainers”. Here’s what that means.

If you need information about any aspect of your separation or taking your case to court on your own, you can try to find all the information you need on the internet.  Unfortunately, that information won’t be specific to your case and you will miss a lot of information because family law is governed by precedent court decisions, which are not easy to find and not easy to interpret. It is a lot less time consuming and a lot more cost effective to present your case to a lawyer and get his or her opinion on your case. But you may not have the money or the budget to hire the lawyer for all of the issues which you are facing. So what can you do?

Well, there is an answer. You can hire the lawyer for one specific task or as many tasks as you wish. Thanks to recent changes to the Rules which govern lawyers’ professional obligations, lawyers can now offer services for a limited purpose. If you have to take your ex to court, you can represent yourself but, as you need it, you can along the way get a lawyer’s help to:

  • Give a legal opinion about your specific case;
  • draft your court documents,
  • give advice as to what is required for financial disclosure both as to what you should give and what you should get,
  • assist you in gathering that information for court,
  • help you prepare your presentation to the court, including providing you with precedent court decisions on any specific issue,
  • help you understand rules of evidence and court room procedure,
  • provide coaching assistance for negotiations with your ex;
  • if you feel uncomfortable about going to court on your own, you can hire the lawyer for one specific court appearance and no others;
  • steer you to resources such as valuation professionals, psychologists for parenting assessments, counselors, and other experts who you may need for your case.

In short, you can hire the lawyer on an ‘as needed basis’, thereby limiting your fees to your budget.

If you choose to go that route, the lawyer will want you to sign what is called a limited scope retainer agreement so that he or she knows just what it is you are retaining him or her to do. There will also probably be a request for money up front to cover the work but the lawyer will be able to give you a pretty good estimate of what the assigned task will cost. So you probably won’t be asked for any more money, unless you want to obtain more services. You may be obliged to sign more than one agreement if you want more services as you go.

Some cases are too complex to be managed effectively by a limited scope retainer and the lawyer will let you know  if that’s the case. But a large number of cases can be managed appropriately on this type of a retainer. Yours may well be one.