Alleviating the access-to-justice crisis: should we expand the role of paralegals in Ontario?

Currently, paralegals are regulated in Ontario, but the legal areas in which they can practice are quite restricted. Paralegals were to submit a motion to expand their legal roles at the 2013 Annual General Meeting of the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), the organisation that regulates both lawyers and paralegals, but it was discarded at the last minute in the midst of a growing controversy that the proposal created. Despite this, the potential expansion of areas in which paralegals can practice is bound to come up again in Ontario.

It is no coincidence that Jessica Prince and Rory Gillis, two lawyers who wrote an article in the Globe and Mail last November arguing for an expansion of the legal areas in which paralegals should be allowed to practice, are volunteers at a low-income legal assistance clinic. Expanding the legal role of paralegals can only benefit the access-to-justice crisis plaguing Canada, and more specifically in this case, Ontario.

Further penetrating the monopoly that lawyers hold over providing legal services is one step in making the law and the courts more accessible to the average Canadian. Paralegals, who go through more practical training in less time, are in a perfect position to offer legal services at a reduced fee compared to lawyers, allowing more people to access the legal help they desperately need.

Preventing the expansion of legal services that can be provided by paralegals does not protect the public as this article suggests, rather, it perpetuates the on-going violation of the public’s right to access affordable legal services. Legitimate concerns about training and qualifications of paralegals can be addressed through educational and training requirements, and I invite lawyers who are so concerned by this issue to get involved with LSUC in administering and designing these requirements.  

This point of view may seem strange coming from a (hopefully) soon-to-be lawyer, but my experience as a summer student with the criminal duty counsel team in Brampton Ontario as well as my experience at the Immigrant Worker’s Centre and the Mile End Legal Clinic in Montreal have shown me just how exorbitant the fees of certain lawyers can be for services which directly impact an individual’s well-being.

When we are talking about whether or not someone gets to remain in Canada or be deported, whether someone faces months of jail time or a suspended sentence or whether someone gets access to their children, it is crucial that legal services are affordable and accessible. In a society where the individuals involved in crucial legal decisions such as these often have no legal assistance whatsoever because they cannot afford a lawyer, increasing the roles of paralegals is a viable way to address this problem.  

If expanding the role of paralegals in our legal system isn’t the way to go, then what are some alternative solutions to the access-to-justice crisis we are currently facing? Until this question is addressed, I honestly have no more patience to listen to the flat-out rejection of increasing paralegals’ legal roles in Ontario.

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4 thoughts on “Alleviating the access-to-justice crisis: should we expand the role of paralegals in Ontario?

  1. It is an interesting point. The argument is of course based on the fact that paralegals charge less per hour than lawyers do. I wonder, however, if the gap would not close if paralegals were required to have liability insurance and other incidentals such as continuing education that lawyers need. Generally, however, I think a large part of the problem is the business model of most law firms. Are there not alternatives to billable hours that would work for both the layer and the public? Would paralegals still bill by the hour? Or are there viable, cheaper, and more predictable alternatives available for young lawyers and other jurists who wish to disrupt the status quo?

  2. Point of clarification: Paralegals are required to maintain Errors and Omissions insurance, under the Law Society of Upper Canada rules and by-laws. Many chose to purchase insurance before regulation was introduced, as the Access to Justice Act, more than six years ago. Now it is mandatory.

    Paralegals take mandatory Continuing Professional Development courses, just as lawyers do. We take CPDs at are directly related to the Paralegal Scope of Practice, such as changes in the Small Claims Court Rules, POA legislation, and Consumer Protection Act changes. Many choose to take courses that are outside the scope, but nonetheless of interest to them. Similarly, lawyers can take CPDs related to paralegal work. In any event, those hours count towards the CPD Yearly Requirement, for both paralegals and lawyers.

    And — good news — the Law Society is undertaking an initiative to examine Alternative Business Structures (ABS). You can learn more about the models being considered, at Paralegal SCOPE Magazine:

    http://paralegalscope.com/2014/02/27/two-wills-for-the-price-of-one-abs-concerns-raised/

    The ABS decision came at February Convocation at the LSUC. My magazine covers Convocation on behalf of paralegals. We are a very active and interested bunch, and proud to be the most-recent licensed providers of legal services in the Province of Ontario.

    Best,

    Elizabeth LeReverend

    • Thanks so much for the clarification and contribution Elizabeth!

      I fully support an increasing role and presence of paralegals in Ontario because I think it will have a positive impact on access to justice.

      I just hope that paralegals find innovative ways to shake things up and make the law – and justice – more accessible in Ontario (perhaps more than lawyers have been able to do).

      Re: Alternative Business Structures – you read my mind! This will be the topic of my next post.

      Lawyers have had an almost-monopoly on the law for such a long time, and access to justice doesn’t seem to be getting much better. So hopefully all of these innovations will breathe some fresh air into the struggle.

  3. Pingback: How LSUC’s four-pronged reinvigoration of the legal profession in Ontario can help improve access to justice | Legal Injustices | Injustices Juridiques

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