Common diatribes levied against the market for legal services typically take aim at the hourly fees, the complexity of the justice system, and the exclusivity of bona fide legal advice as a covetous but inaccessible resource. Access to legal services is not a new problem – and is no stranger to legislative reform. For decades, the Ontario legislature has attempted to improve access to justice by enacting statutes like the Legal Aid Services Act, 2020 (SO 2020, c 11, Sched 15) and by amending existing laws, e.g., the Arbitration Act, 1991 (SO 1991 c 17.) and the Courts of Justice Act. (RSO 1990, c C 43.).
In recent years, there have emerged a number of non-legislative initiatives which claim to provide alternatives to traditional legal advice. Earlier this year, Matthew Dylag published i“Crowdsourcing Justice” (2023) in 20 Canadian Journal of Law and Justice 153 (the “Dylag Study”), which examined the viability of crowdsourcing legal services on a platform known as “Reddit.” Reddit is a popular, unregulated community forum website where anonymous users interact with one another in threads of dialogue on a plethora of topics and sub-topics, or “subreddits.”
The Dylag Study examined nine subreddits containing vibrant discussions of legal problems in Ontario, covering a range of topics including employment law, family law, and housing issues. (Dylag Study, p 162.) The Dylag study found that the quality of legal advice provided on Reddit is “overwhelmingly below” that of a licensed lawyer or paralegal. Moreover, he found these threads to contain a mixed bag of contradictory comments—some helpful, others misleading—leaving the reader to wade through at their own peril. Dylag nevertheless opined that, provided that users take a critical approach to the legal information and verify the legitimacy of the source referred to, crowdsourcing legal services from social media platforms such as Reddit may promote the distribution of relevant and authoritative legal education.
The Dylag Study raises important issues surrounding access to justice and the efficiency of crowdsourcing information which is not otherwise easy to come by. However, crowdsourced legal advice comes with its own perils.
Dylag’s qualified endorsement of crowdsourced legal services is helpful to the savvy individual seeking legal resources on social media with the capacity to discern between helpful and misleading legal jargon—and who will do external research to confirm the veracity of the named sources. Although such a person may indeed benefit from crowdsourced legal advice, they would sooner find themselves navigating to authoritative websites, such as Community Legal Education Ontario’s Steps to Justice, Legal Aid Ontario, the National Self-Represented Litigants Projects’ SRL Resources page, or any one of the resources available on the Ontario Courts Legal Assistance page, all of which can be found readily by Google search.
On Reddit, there is typically no way to identify the users, assess the veracity of their sources, or reign in on misinformation. Widening this lens to other giant social media platforms with billions of active users, there is potential for users to publish conflicting legal information ad infinitum. The scope of legal service crowdsourcing through social media would thus appear to have no limit but for an individual’s patience to sift through posts and comments.
Further, the anonymity that necessarily flows from crowdsourced legal services shields users from potential liability for providing unlicensed legal services under the Law Society Act. Indeed, the Law Society Act prohibits anyone without a valid license from practising law or providing legal services in Ontario, and imposes hefty fines for any contravention of this law. Licensed legal professionals are not just trained to provide legal services, but are insured in case they make mistakes. They are also regulated by provincial Law Societies, which impose strict codes of conduct and disciplinary measures for the failure to adhere to these codes. No such protections are afforded to an individual who acts on legal misinformation provided by an anonymous user on an unregulated social media platform.
Finally, and very importantly, individuals seeking legal advice on social media cannot be expected to tread water in the murky distinction between “legal services” and “legal information.” (See e.g. https://www.slaw.ca/2017/09/26/legal-advice-vs-legal-information-clearing-up-the-murky-water/#_ftn5) Sharing legal information, such as statutes or the above-noted resource pages, does not accrue liability under the Law Society Act. On the other hand, the unlicensed provision of “legal advice,” “legal services,” or the “practise of law” is explicitly prohibited. Legal services are defined in in Section 1(5) of the Law Society Act as “conduct that involves the application of legal principles and legal judgment with regard to the circumstances or objectives of a person.” At most, social media crowdsourcing may provide a springboard for research into authoritative sources of legal information. Individuals and businesses looking for legal advice at a discount would be wise to avoid crowdsourced legal services from social media platforms and approach with caution any legal information obtained from unregulated discussion boards.