By Jimmy Yan
Project and Information Officer
Access Pro Bono Society of BC
CELS Research Assistant
Posted November 2016
Lawyers are no longer the centre of the universe in terms of providing free legal services to promote access to justice though they still play a critical role. Multiple keynote speakers, including the Honourable Chief Justice George R. Strathy of Ontario, indicated such paradigm change at the 6th National Pro Bono Conference held in Ottawa in late September. How we could facilitate holistic services, in lieu of mere free legal consultation, to people with limited means has become a discussion during and after the conference. Access Pro Bono Society of BC (APB) is now exploring a new way to involve non-legal experts and professionals to help with consumer protection matters.
Non-legal professionals have been playing an indispensable role in helping consumers have their complaints heard or even disputes resolved for 30 years in BC. Canadian Chinese Consumers Association BC (CCCA) is a Richmond-based non-profit society that has been dedicated to serving consumers in related to consumer rules and complaints since 1986. CCCA organizes accountants, financiers and industry experts to serve consumers in both English and Chinese. 80% of CCCA's consumer issues are related to retail services, telecommunication services, home renovation, automobile sales or repairs, travel agencies, beauty services, credit card payment, etc. (Consumer Handbook, 2010, p.8).
APB has recently received funds from an award of a class action lawsuit: Steele and Others v. Toyota Canada Inc. and Others to “provide summary legal advice for individuals with potential or actual [consumer protection] cases” (“Clinic Program Plan”, 2016, para.1). The collaboration between CCCA and APB will create a new consumer protection clinic in Richmond once a week on Thursdays. This service covers unfair debt collection practices, bankruptcy counselling and advice, foreclosure prevention, unfair and deceptive advertising, product liability claims, unfair credit reporting, as well as issues involving the BC Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act (“Clinic Program Plan”, para.2).
Consumers can first talk to industry experts or non-legal professionals to effectively narrow down their consumer protection issues. Then consumers can bring facts, proofs and questions to lawyers for merit assessment. When litigation is considered not cost-beneficial or has a slim chance of success, non-legal professionals are still able to assist consumers to resolve their issues through effective communication with service providers and product manufacturers or to file a formal complaint to make sure the issue is properly heard by regulatory authorities. When taking legal action becomes practical, non-legal professionals may further provide opinions as experts to testify at trial.
Involving non-legal professionals can be a key to the consumer protection program's success because it would be more effective for lawyers to work with professional accountants, financiers, interpreters and industry experts to better identify relevant and meritorious cases that have sufficient proofs to support a valid legal claim of deprivation of consumer rights. Though we may be experiencing a change of paradigm, the collaboration of all professionals to offer holistic services for needy people is not a challenge but rather an opportunity for us to achieve the goal of a more equitable society.