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Rural areas losing lawyers, reducing access to justice
By Dean Jobb
March 12 2010 issue

David Eldridge, standing in front of his Barrington, N.S., law office. [Photo by Robin Smith for The Lawyers Weekly]
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The first lawyer to live and practice in Barrington, a municipality with a population of about 9,000 at the southern tip of Nova Scotia, is worried he may be the last.

David Eldridge, who turned 60 last summer, has been trying for five years to find someone to take over the solo practice he established in 1978. He’s taken out advertisements, approached law firms in nearby towns, even chatted up local students who went to law school.

There have been no takers.

“Rural practice does not mean low income…a lawyer can make a very good living,” Eldridge insists, and could be clearing six figures within a few years instead of struggling to climb the ladder in a large firm. “The demand is still here. The door is wide open for someone to come in.”

But the rules of supply and demand no longer seem to apply to the legal profession in small and remote communities. While there’s a demand for legal services, the supply of lawyers is not keeping pace. And the implications for access to justice in small-town Canada are serious.

It’s a trend across the country — lawyers outside major cities are older than their urban counterparts and not enough young lawyers and graduating students are taking their place.

Some communities in British Columbia “are facing a pretty severe shortage of lawyers,” says Michael Litchfield, who recruits law students for small-town firms under a program run by the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch.

Only 20 per cent of the province’s 10,200 lawyers practice outside the metropolitan areas of Vancouver, the Lower Mainland and Victoria, and they’re older than the provincial average. The average age of the four lawyers serving some 15,000 people in Castlegar, in the Kootenay Mountains, is 63, he says.

“We know those lawyers are going to be retiring in the next 10 to 15 years,” adds Litchfield, making the problem worse.

The Law Society of Saskatchewan is seeing a similar trend. “The population of rural lawyers is aging, with many in the 50- to 65-year age band,” says Executive Director Thomas Schonhoffer. And there has been “a slow decline in the numbers and centralization from small towns to some of the smaller cities.”

Next door in Manitoba, lawyers in small and northern communities “are having trouble finding people to come and take over their practice,” law society CEO Allan Fineblit told The Lawyers Weekly.

“There just isn’t that kind of natural, healthy refreshing of the profession…eventually that is unsustainable — people will reach a point where they are physically or mentally incapable of continuing, or will die.”

It’s a good thing many lawyers are choosing to soldier on, he adds. “If lawyers retired at normal retirement age, there’d be a real crisis.”

Of the 1,830 lawyers practising in Manitoba in 2007, Fineblit noted in a memo to benchers, only 42 worked in northern communities like Flin Flon, Thompson and The Pas.

The Law Society of Upper Canada is taking a different approach. Rather than viewing the problem as rural versus urban, it is concerned about the impact of an aging bar on the two-thirds of Ontario lawyers in private practice who are sole practitioners or in firms with fewer than 10 members.

With an estimated 40 per cent of the province’s lawyers over 50, society treasurer W.A. Derry Millar last year urged members working in “soles and smalls” to have succession plans in place “to guarantee that our obligations to clients can be met.”

In Nova Scotia, close to three-quarters of all lawyers practice within a one-hour drive of downtown Halifax, creating “an imbalance between where the population is and where the lawyers are,” says Victoria Rees, acting executive director of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

“Where a small community loses a lawyer due to illness or death, and there’s no succession plan in place, it can have a direct impact on access to justice,” she adds.

Even if there are other lawyers in town, they may be unable to take on additional clients or may find themselves referring more clients due to conflicts of interest. Residents may have to drive to neighbouring communities to seek legal advice.

“The clients may actually choose not to pursue their legal rights rather than bear the high cost and inconvenience of trying to find a lawyer,” says Rees.

That’s assuming there’s another lawyer nearby. For residents of Northern Manitoba’s far-flung communities, “it may mean they have to fly to another community or travel four or five hours to get to the next town that has a lawyer,” Fineblit points out.

It may also mean clients don’t have access to lawyers who speak their language or understand their culture, Rees adds. Nova Scotia’s First Nations and much of its French-speaking Acadian minority are located in rural areas in danger of losing legal services.

Eldridge, meanwhile, has scaled back his practice to property and probate files, put a for sale sign on the building where he practiced for decades, and set up a home office.

“I feel bad that, for the benefit of the community, I wasn’t able to find anyone to take over the practice and offer a full-service practice,” he says. “It shouldn’t end this way.”

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