Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Toronto family lawyer Ayesha Rafiq says that studying and practising law abroad has made her more sensitive to the issues family law clients often face.
Rafiq, an associate with Gottlieb Law Firm, graduated from LUMS in Pakistan with a B.A./LL.B degree in 2011. Before moving to Canada, she worked with a renowned litigation firm where she practised in the areas of family, criminal, corporate and human rights law.
That experience helped her narrow down her niche in family law, Rafiq says.
“Family lawyers have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and that’s what I want to do. Even a small difference is powerful.”
Recognition for foreign credentials
Rafiq’s journey to practising family law in Canada has been filled with twists and turns.
In 2013, she and her family moved to Toronto, but she couldn’t practise law right away. Lawyers educated outside of Canada must be accredited by the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA), the agency responsible for assessing the education and professional experience of lawyers who obtain their credentials abroad.
“Every applicant who studied in a common-law jurisdiction has to complete five exams. After I passed those, I got my certificate of qualification by the NCA in 2016,” Rafiq says.
That’s the equivalent of graduating from a Canadian law school. After that, applicants have to take the bar exams — solicitor and barrister — and find an articling position, which is challenging for newcomers because it’s highly competitive, she says.
Canadian experience through clerking
Although Rafiq was admitted to the Ontario bar two years ago, she only started practising as a family lawyer last year.
“Even though I secured an articling position with a local firm, it didn’t give me enough experience,” she says.
So, rather than applying for the associate lawyer jobs for which she was qualified, Rafiq says she made a conscious decision to work as a law clerk to gain a deeper understanding of family law.
“I wanted to learn more about how family law works, as I didn’t get enough experience during my articles to feel comfortable. I didn’t want to prejudice anyone’s rights,” she says, adding that while clerking at Gottlieb Law Firm, she gained experience on large and high-conflict family files as well as complex trials.
Having the firm’s founder, Gary Gottlieb, as a mentor has helped her figure out the kind of lawyer she wants to become, Rafiq says.
“He doesn’t see lawyers on the other side as ‘opposing.’ He always talks to them with respect. He’s an articulate and passionate advocate for clients. That’s the kind of lawyer I want to be.”
For now, Rafiq says she is content to be the kind of lawyer who can help clients achieve a fair outcome in their family law matter.
She recently represented a father who was awarded sole custody of his child. The mother had a history of alcoholism, including a car accident that involved her five-year-old son. What was unusual about the case is that the mother did not attempt to challenge the custody order, Rafiq says.
“Usually, parents dealing with substance abuse tend to clean up their act when it comes down to losing custody of their children. However, this was not true in our case.”
The father was “extremely patient” and wanted to share custody on the condition the mother seek help for her addiction and anger issues, but she refused, Rafiq adds.
“Both parties were ordered to work with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) to determine parenting issues, but the mother refused to cooperate. After several failed attempts to communicate with her, the OCL was forced to close its file,” she explains.
Rafiq filed an affidavit for an uncontested trial, and her client was awarded primary residence and sole decision-making for his son as well as costs in the case.
“It’s truly unfortunate that it came down to the mother not being able to share custody of her son, but what matters at the end of the day is the best interests of the child,” she says.
Empathy for domestic violence victims
Shortly after Rafiq arrived in Canada, she started to work with Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, supporting victims of domestic violence as well as adults with developmental disabilities and Indigenous youth.
Rafiq says that experience, coupled with what she learned during her work on a seminal rape case in Pakistan, has made her a more empathetic advocate for her clients.
“I have become sensitive to women who are facing domestic violence, and I really want to make a difference in their lives,” she says.
Rafiq, who speaks Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi, says her background gives her an advantage when it comes to understanding clients from diverse cultures who may have more traditional ideas about marriage and divorce.
“Where I come from, it’s frowned upon to leave a marriage. But what I want people to think about when they stay in a bad marriage is the impact it’s having on their children. Do you want them to think that’s what marriage is? Children are watching — they internalize things, and it comes out in their relationships.”
Pakistan’s legal system versus Canada’s
While the family law system in Canada may have its shortcomings, Rafiq says they pale in comparison to Pakistan’s, where the justice system is fraught with challenges.
“The legal system in Pakistan is outdated, and litigants often don’t have access to effective remedies or compensation. Often, cases experience a considerable number of delays. Adjournments are granted on unreasonable requests, and there is no integration of technology,” she says.
In her family law practice, Rafiq handles all aspects of separation and divorce, including property settlements, equalization, child/spousal support, decision-making responsibility for children and parenting time. If you would like to schedule a consultation with her, you can connect here.