Sector: Social & Human Services
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
An Edmonton lawyer is piloting a harmonious approach to divorce settlements that could change the game in Canada.
Melissa Bourgeois, with One Family Law, spent the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic working on a process that allows one lawyer to represent a couple together in legal separation from start to finish, a practice that is currently barred in Canada.
“It’s really a paradigm shift,” Bourgeois says.
“Most people’s viewpoint is that there is only one way to do this — you have to hire your own lawyer, your lawyer represents your interests, you need to go into this very secretive kind of weird portal that you come out of four years later and $100,000 poorer and still have no idea what happened.”
Bourgeois saw the process at work in the United Kingdom, where she says it has become the de facto model for amicably divorced couples. The concept of using one lawyer struck a chord with her, having had a tumultuous career in family law and mediation.
She took a huge risk working for two years on proposals for the Law Society of Alberta, not knowing whether she’d get the green light. She was eventually granted permission and formally launched her pilot project, the one-family lawyer model, in January 2023.
Bourgeois says she’s found many separating couples genuinely want the best for each other. This approach can be especially appealing to parents who want to maintain a constructive co-parenting relationship that will allow them to, for example, attend their kids’ soccer games together.
“It’s a very weird concept to say we’re going to hire a lawyer together because we want each of us to come out of this as well as we can. This oppositional kind of conflict-driven narrative is something that, throughout the years of my practice, I was finding people just simply don’t want,” she says.
“The average family doesn’t really have a huge amount of resources to be spending on lawyers. It’s a very mystique-driven process… so this is really putting the power back in people’s hands, providing them with impartial legal information that applies to them. The idea is they decide from there what the terms of the separation should be.”
The pilot is, first and foremost, a legal reform project.
Canadian law currently precludes lawyers from representing opposing parties in a dispute because it’s viewed as a conflict of interest.
Bourgeois says she’s heard positive feedback from clients and colleagues so far, and, with financial support from SEF, has cleared her slate to focus her practice solely on this model.
She’s even started drafting a book that will help people understand the framework of an amicable separation, and even empower some couples to do it themselves without lawyers.
Bourgeois views the one-lawyer approach as being helpful to overworked lawyers and the judicial system at large, as well as clients who want a relatively quick and painless divorce experience — she says most cases can be finished in six to eight weeks.
“Anything that keeps people away from the courthouse I think would be supported by the judiciary. It’s a system that is over-burdened right now,” she says.
“If we’re not ready for it, it is going to be coming anyway. This is Alberta’s opportunity to showcase just how innovative we are, and how we are nimble enough to bring forward big changes to the way of thinking.”
– Kevin Maimann
Originally published in Edify, May 2023
Reprinted with permission