Alberta family lawyer offering a simpler, friendlier way to divorce

An Edmonton lawyer is paving the way for a more streamlined, faster, cheaper and more co-operative model of divorce. The approach, being offered as a pilot project in Alberta, uses one lawyer jointly for the couple.

It’s the first time this method has been offered in Canada — in fact, it’s believed to be a first for all of North America.

Instead of having each person retain their own lawyer and then battle it out in court, this process has the two people meet with one lawyer together and work out a divorce agreement that works for everyone.

“The dominant thinking in the movies and TV is … you get that big shark and you go (to war), but ultimately family law is about families,” said Melissa Bourgeois with One Family Law.

“Families kind of band together in days like today, where we don’t actually want to fight. Life has been hard enough,” she said.

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Bourgeois saw the one-couple, one-lawyer, one-fee model work in the U.K. and wanted to offer it in Canada. In 2020, she presented her proposal to the Law Society of Alberta, and was given the green light to run it at as a pilot project.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Bourgeois said. “It’s a really big shift in thinking. So there’s lots of risks associated to how we could go about this in a way. But there’s (also) an increasing risk of access to justice because the courthouses are overloaded, lawyers are overworked and tired and we have huge caseloads and we’re trying to assist people in that traditional system but there’s a limit.”

While traditional divorce proceedings can cost tens of thousands of dollars per person and last months (subject to court delays and backlogs), the one-lawyer model costs $5,000 total and takes six weeks.

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“People don’t have the resources they used to have, they don’t have the time.

“This is very straightforward for people. They know what the deliverables are.”

Bourgeois explained the process: both people give their consent to hire a lawyer jointly, background information is gathered including financial disclosure and details about any children or property, terms of a settlement are drafted that best meet everyone’s needs, and then paperwork is filed.

“It’s the mindset that we want something that will work for both of us. This is hard enough from an emotional standpoint. We don’t want the legal process to be something that each of us then goes and hire lawyers on each side.

“I don’t advocate for one side nor am I a judge. So it’s really giving them the information that benefits them and they decide from there how they’re going to structure things.”

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Bourgeois says there’s a huge demand for a more co-operative and less expensive divorce, especially when there are children involved.

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“The rule that I’ve overcome is that I’m able to act for people who are ‘opposing parties’ in a ‘dispute.’ And I was like, ‘First, they’re not opposing parties and they’re not in an active dispute.’ Because if you’re parents, I’m sorry, to take the position that you’re opposing each other? But it’s a historical system that’s come a long way. It’s evolving.

“I acknowledge the role of the law, but this has very much just been: one impartial lawyer can give two people impartial legal advice that benefits them both.”

So far, Bourgeois has worked with 16 Alberta couples.

Bourgeois hopes to see the One Family Lawyer model formalized and then expanded across Canada one day.

“It’s taken off in the U.K. in a matter of years to become the dominant family law model,” she said.

“It’s just a reframing what a relationship means. Just because it’s not romantic love doesn’t mean you can’t love someone in a different way. But our dominant thinking has been: ‘Well, that person’s your enemy. Never speak to them again and only speak to them through your adviser.’

“Taking that legal side off of it — ‘What are you going to do to me? What could you do to me? What is this going to look like?’ — Having that done allows them to move towards healing and to really figuring out their co-parenting relationship.”

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The clients have been very generous and open with their feedback, Bourgeois said. Personally, she can’t imagine practising family law any other way.

“My practice is very peaceful now.”

Bourgeois has only just had time to reflect on how revolutionary this work could be.

“This is what the people have been waiting for. This is what they really want,” she said. “I’ve had people come back and say, ‘This is the relationship that we have and we never thought that this was something that was possible.’

“Not everybody wants a battle and, in fact, very few do.”

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