Family Law Blog

Answers to Common Questions About Lawyers Fees

John at Desk

There are a few common questions that many people have about lawyer’s fees. It is always important to understand how your lawyer bills you so that you can understand what you are spending your money on and how you can keep your fees down.  Here are John Schuman’s answers to those questions for his office (other firms may have different answers, so make sure you ask):

What does the hourly rate cover?

Family lawyers charge by the hour according to an hourly rate.  The lawyer should tell you what his or her hourly rate is when you first hire him or her.  If the lawyer’s hourly rate is $500 per hour than $500 covers one hour of the lawyer’s time.  Fifty dollars covers six minutes of the lawyer’s time (six minutes is one-tenth of an hour).   How much a lawyer gets done in that time depends on many factors, but, for instance, if you speak to your lawyer about your file for 10 minutes, the charge will be $100.   It may take her an hour or two, maybe three to do a brief for court (even longer for complicated cases).   If you have a settlement meeting, that will take as long as it takes.  If you are working with a law clerk on something, they charge less per hour. Many lawyers have clerks, students or junior lawyers do as much as possible on your file to keep your fees down.

Is there an additional charge for court?

John, and the lawyers he works with, do not have extra charges for appearing in court.  It is just the usual hourly rate.  If you want a more senior lawyer appearing in court, then you would pay the senior lawyers’ hourly rate instead of the hourly rate of the more junior lawyer.  While you are paying the bills, it is always up to you whether you have a more senior or more junior lawyer appear in court because that affects how much you will pay.  For more complicated or difficult matters, you probably want a more senior lawyer going because you will get better results and save money in the end.

How much is the retainer fee?

The retainer fee for John to be the “main lawyer” on your file starts at $5000.00 for all files except marriage contracts. (For marriage contracts, the retainer is $3000.00).  How much the retainer is, depends on how complicated your matter is and how much your fees will be. For child protection matters, the retainer is usually at least $10,000.00.  For John to do a trial, the retainer is usually at least $10,000 per anticipated day of trial.  Some of the lawyers that John works with have retainers that start at $5000.00.  You really need to meet with a lawyer to find out what the retainer will be.  The lawyer may lower the retainer for simple matters or have to raise it if your matter is going to be in court and require a lot of work.

What does the retainer fee cover?

At John’s law office, the retainer fee is applied against your last bill or bills.  It goes against whatever fees are owing when we close your file and then if there is anything left over, we give back to you.  For our work, we provide detailed monthly bills and our bills are due within 30 days.  We do not charge an administrative fee for opening your file or having you as a client.  All the money you give us goes towards fees and disbursements (such as copying, couriers, etc.).   There is a disbursement for opening your file on the software that creates all the court forms, but no administrative fees, room fees, etc.

Are there other expenses to pay besides the lawyer’s hourly rates?

There are other expenses.  There are photocopying and maybe fax charges.  There are court filing fees and process server fees if you go to court.  There can be courier fees.  If you need an accountant to figure out how much your spouse makes, there will be fees for that.  However, your lawyer should only involve such a professional if he or she feels that you will “make money” on it in the end by getting more support or a better result on the property issues.  There may be fees for a mediator or arbitrator if you chose that route. (The fees for a mediator or arbitrator are often small compared to the expenses involved with going to court).  If you are seeking support, or trying to enforce support, everything you spend in relation to support is tax deductible, which may make a big difference - especially if  you are receiving spousal support because spousal support is taxable to the recipient.  If you are defending a claim for support, then your fees are not tax deductible in Canada.

Can I be billed as a contingency fee or a percentage of what I get in my divorce?

The Law Society of Upper Canada does not permit contingency fee arrangements in family law matters.  This is because in family law cases, the amount of money involved is often not related to how complex the case may be or how much time a lawyer must spend to complete it.  First, in custody/access cases, what parents decide and how much they spend is not related to how much money they will recover in the end - it is based on what they believe is in their children’s best interests.  Second, in family law and divorce cases, many separated spouses want to “teach the ex a lesson” and spend more to fight over things than those things are worth out of “principal.”  Good family lawyers always advise against that, but separated spouses do not always listen.  And, even if one spouse is acting completely reasonably, that does not mean the other spouse is also acting reasonably.  Once all the facts are known, the determination of many financial issues is can be predictable and good family lawyers will know what the range of fair settlements will be.  That is why disclosure is so important in family law cases.  When two separated spouses act reasonably, listen to their lawyer’s advice, provide disclosure early and negotiate rather than litigate, they can finish of their separation or divorce for far less than a lawyer would charge as a contingency fee.  On the other hand, if they litigate aggressively over small matters, the cost that they pay will be much more. 

John's podcast photo

If you need to know more about the options after separation, and how they can vary in cost, then listen to the edition of the Ontario Family Law Podcast at left.

Will there be only one lawyer working on my case?  What would other people do?  

2 - Options for Resolving Matters After Separation

The lawyer you retain to be your “main lawyer” should  be the lawyer doing most of the work on your case.  The lawyer’s law clerks may work on parts of your case, such as preparing your financial statement, disclosure or briefs.  They charge a lower rate.  Junior lawyers or articling students may do the first draft of other documents, answer some of your questions or do some other lower tasks at a lower hourly rate, but under the supervision of your main lawyer.   If there is an emergency, and your main lawyer is not available, one of the other lawyers in the firm will step in – usually one who has heard something about your case.   

Will I be charged for speaking to the secretary or receptionist?

At John’s office, you are not charged for speaking to our receptionist.  Due to automation, we do not have any assistants doing Family Law or Education Law cases, we only have law clerks.  Law clerks charge for their time when they are doing substantive work on your file, such as drafting documents, doing calculations, or talking with you about issues in your case.  Law clerks do not charge for “administrative tasks” such as scheduling meetings, photocopying, etc.

Are there ways to keep the legal costs down in my divorce or other case?

You can keep your costs down by providing the necessary disclosure and providing the information we need.   You can also keep your costs down by not calling us “just to talk” as we charge for our time.  If you need some additional assistance with the emotions surrounding divorce, or some personal support, we can refer you to people who are excellent at that and charge less than we do.  Avoiding unnecessary fights with your spouse will also keep your costs down, as will staying out of court if that is possible.   The biggest way you can keep your costs down is to listen to your lawyer’s advice as his or her goal is to get you through your divorce or other legal matter as quickly and inexpensively as possible.  Lawyers want you to be happy at the end so you refer other clients to them. 

Does my lawyer give me copies of letters and other documents in relation to my case?

At John’s office, everything that comes in or of our office is sent to you as a PDF attachment to an email.   You can direct us to send you things a different way if you want.   Because we have a “paperless” office, we do charge 25 cents per page to make paper copies, but most people prefer the PDFs.  You will be reviewing all court documents before we send them out and probably almost all letters that we send on your behalf.  There are some simple letters that say things like “Please find enclosed” or that are asking to schedule an event that your lawyer may not ask you to review - and you probably would not want to spend the time to review. 

Will you require that I have paid everything that I owe you before you will go to court with me or finish my case?

Lawyers will not continue to do work on your file if you owe them money, unless alternative arrangements have been made in writing.  In cases where a spouse is short on money after separation,  one of the first goals should be to get that spouse the money he or she needs to pay ALL expenses.  Grocery stores sell food.  Lawyers sell legal services based on the time it takes to provide those services.  Lawyers have to pay their staff, their rent, their utilities and equipment charges, other expenses, and then provide for their own family after paying all those expenses.  There is not much room for them to work for free.

Can clients have payment plans to pay their lawyer’s fees?

At John’s office, our goal is to make sure our clients have enough money.  It is possible that if the circumstances merit it, we will give a client additional time to pay bills,  but we would discuss that as the need arose.

Will you put our agreement about fees and what work you will perform in writing?

Whenever you hire a lawyer, you should have a formal written retainer agreement that sets out what type of work the lawyer will be doing, what type of work the lawyer will not be doing, what you will be charged for, what the lawyer’s fees are, how you communicate with the lawyer and other people in the law office, what happens if special circumstances arise and how you can “fire” the lawyer or how the lawyer can stop working for you.  At John’s office, we have a written agreement that we provide to you, and explain to you, before you decide whether to hire us.  You should know exactly what the arrangements are before you and your lawyer start working together. 

Guide to the Basics of Ontario Family Law - 4th edition cover

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Your lawyer should explain to you how fees work at his or her office at the first time you meet with him or her.  There should be no surprises about how you are billed for your divorce or any other legal matter.  That is why John provides all the above information up front.  Then as you make decisions about how to proceed with your case, you will have an idea about what each choice will cost.   To get advice on your situation, or if you have any Ontario Family Law questions that you need answers, contact Certified Specialist in Family Law, John Schuman, by calling 416-446-4036, emailing him, or filling out the form below. You can also use the form below to comment on this page.

In any separation or divorce, there are many common mistakes that people make when they do not speak to a lawyer.  Making those mistakes can cost a lot in legal fees to correct.  You should speak to a lawyer so you know your rights and how the law applies to your situation up front so that you do not do something that will cost you a lot in the end.  Pick up a copy of the Guide to the Basics of Ontario Family Law, which is an easy-to-understand book on Ontario Family Law that explains property division, matrimonial homes, child support, alimony and most other family law issues so that you know where you stand.  You can get the paperback from Amazon, or you can immediately download the $9.99 Kindle ebook or iBook for your iPad or iPhone.

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How Old Does A Child Have To Be To Stay Home Alone?


When a child can stay home alone is a question many parents ask, especially with rising daycare costs.  In a recent Family Court appeal decision in British Columbia, which has been reported in the national media, the court ordered that a very mature eight-year-old child was too young to stay home alone based on his age alone.  The court did not care about the child’s maturity level, but noted that many children under the age of 10 had been injured or harmed when left unsupervised.   On that basis, the Court ordered that the child welfare authorities could intervene in the family. 

In Ontario (and British Columbia) there is no statute that says how old a child must be to stay home alone.  However, s. 37(2) of the Child and Family Services Act authorizes the court to order that a child be placed in foster care, or that a children’s aid society can intervene in the family, if a parent has failed to make adequate provisions for the care of a child or if the child may be at risk of physical harm.  Children’s Aid Societies have used these provisions as a basis for intervening because parents have left a child, who is too young, unsupervised.  So leaving a child alone at too young an age can result in the parents ending up in court or the child ending up in foster care.

As there is no legislated age when a child can be left alone, whether a child is too young is really an evaluation that a child protection worker makes if the child comes to the attention of the children’s aid society.  Some agencies have guidelines, but in Ontario, only Durham Children’s Aid Society publishes its guidelines for when children should be supervised. Those guidelines say that parents may consider leaving children at home under “indirect supervision” starting at age 10.  The expectations of other agencies may or may not be similar.  Even the DCAS guidelines note that this is a judgment call.  But, because of the drastic consequences that can face parents (and children) in Child Protection Court, parents really should “play it safe” and err on the side of caution. Whether a child is too young to be home alone is frequently a decision made by the one child protection worker investigating the situation and his or her beliefs on the subject can carry the day.

One thing that is clear from the BC case is that the child protection worker did not trust the mother who was leaving the child alone.  Even if the child was very mature, the mother’s approach to the worker was not cooperative.  That lack of cooperation made the worker suspicious and doubt the mother’s judgement as a parent.  There are some very important rules to follow when a child protection worker comes to your door.  One of those is to do everything possible to make a good first impression with the worker.  In these cases, making the right impression on the worker can be the difference between whether your child ends up in foster care or whether the children’s aid society goes away completely.

28 - What to do when the Children's Aid Society Calls

Learn more about what children’s aid socities expect and what to do when a children’s aid society calls doing an investigation into child abuse or neglect, by listen to this episode of the Ontario Family Law Podcast. It covers how to act, whether you should speak to the investigator, whether you should let the children be interviewed, what to sign and what not to sign, when to speak to a lawyer and several other tips.

Guide to the Basics of Ontario Family Law - 4th edition cover

There is also a chapter on what to do when the children’s aid society is investigating you in this easy-to-understand book on Ontario Family Law, which available as a paper back and as a $9.99 as a Kindle eBook, Kobo eBook, or iBook for iPad, iPhone or Mac Get a copy today because you really need to know not only your rights when dealing with a children’s aid society, but also how to avoid saying or doing things that seem like a good idea, but which the children’s aid society can use against you.  The ebook can be downloaded in minutes, so you can find out more immediately - before you speak to the CAS or do anything further.

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It really is worth your while to consult a child protection lawyer and read the book because if you get yourself into a trouble in a CAS case, it can take a long time to get yourself out and that may mean that your kids are in foster care for a long time.  Getting good advice early on can keep you out of trouble.

John Schuman is a Certified Specialist in Family Law who has done children’s aid society cases for more than 15 years, acting for parents, children’s aid societies and native “bands” (the term in the Child and Family Services Act for First Nations.  John has a unique approach to advancing the interests of parents and their children (and sometimes their First Nation) by using his comprehensive knowledge of child protection law and constitutional law to develop effective strategies.   He has developed this different, yet effective, approach because John does not practice under the Ontario Legal Aid Plan and is not constrained by the limitations of that service because he operates with private financial retainers.   To contact John Schuman, call 416-446-4036email him, or use the form below.  We view child protection and children’s aid societies matters as emergencies and we will get back you immediately.  Be prepared to come in for a consultation right away as we want to respond to the CAS and protect you right away.

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