B.C. non-profit creates Canada’s first pro bono virtual family mediation project

The Access Pro Bono Society is going online.

Credit: David Eby

MLA David Eby is in favour of Access Pro Bono’s virtual family mediation project

The Access Pro Bono Society is going online

With the majority of business being conducted virtually for the better part of a year, many organizations have become more comfortable with online platforms. Take the Access Pro Bono Society of B.C. (APB), for example. 

With the support of the British Columbia Provincial Court and the Ministry of Attorney General, the APB is launching Canada’s first pro bono virtual family mediation project.

Access Pro Bono is a provincial non-profit organization that provides free legal services to people and non-profit organizations of limited means. APB engages approximately 1,500 volunteer lawyers and some law students and paralegals to provide free legal help to those in need. Their foundational service is typically a free half hour, in-person legal advice session, servicing up to 55 cities and towns in British Columbia.

The pandemic saw APB transition to telephone sessions, which resulted in more people served as the organization saved time on travel, subsequently increasing the number of clients they could help around the province.

“As we came into the pandemic, there was a greater acceptance and comfort around using virtual services and people receiving legal service online over great distances,” says Jamie Maclaren, executive director of APB, on why the non-profit is initiating the pilot project now.

With its virtual sessions reaching more people, APB partnered with Qase—a Vancouver-based legal services startup—to launch the Virtual Family Mediation Project, which is a free online mediation service for low- and modest-income families engaged in the Provincial Court’s Early Resolution Process. 

“We know that having to go to court to resolve family law issues, such as child support or parenting time, can have a significant negative impact on families,” said attorney general David Eby in a release.

“By taking those issues out of the courtroom where possible, this project will lead to better outcomes for families, reducing stress and helping them deal with matters more quickly and efficiently. It is another great example of how technology can improve access to justice and deliver a system that better supports the needs of British Columbians, wherever they are in the province.”

What’s involved

Each party gets free independent legal advice from a certified lawyer, to advise them on their rights and strategy leading into the mediation process. They both get a free mediation session which can last several hours, followed by a meeting with a lawyer to help draft an agreement, hopefully avoiding costly legal fees and the emotional tole of appearing in court.

The lawyers are registered on a voluntary basis and are all licenced professionals, “So there’s no danger of someone who’s not qualified providing the service,” says Maclaren. Every volunteer is also trained in screening for domestic violence and power imbalances in relationships.

“Where we find there’s a chance or likelihood of domestic violence or a significant power imbalance, we will switch to a more hands on, in-person type of service.”

To be eligible for the free mediation service, one of the involved parties needs to qualify for a pro bono service in accordance with Access Pro Bono’s financial eligibility criteria, $60,000 gross annual income or less.

“It may be the case that one person earns quite a bit less than that, and the other earns quite a bit more—but we wouldn’t want that one partner who is at a disadvantage income-wise to not be able to use these free services,” explains Maclaren.

Online services will not replace in-person sessions, still allowing for people without internet access or internet literacy to benefit equally. However, the pandemic has exemplified what can be achieved online.

“This is just the start of a new approach I think, to providing free legal services in British Columbia,” says Maclaren. “And it’ll make our systems and programs much more efficient and accessible to people everywhere.”