If you are involved in a family court case in Ontario and cannot afford a lawyer, should you have the option of hiring a paralegal? Justice Annemarie Bonkalo was tasked by the attorney general and the Law Society of Upper Canada to study this issue and write a report.
The Family Legal Services Review report was recently released. It makes a number of recommendations to improve access to justice in family court. The most controversial of the recommendations was that licensed paralegals in Ontario should be able to obtain a specialized licence to be permitted to represent in family court on certain matters.
There are currently over 8,000 paralegals in Ontario licensed by the law society. Most work independent of lawyers. These are the people you call to fight traffic tickets, as well as to represent you in small claims court, at the landlord and tenant board, in criminal court for certain offences and at other tribunals.
The report states that 57 per cent of people go unrepresented in family court as they cannot afford a lawyer. Yet, they make more than the poverty wages required to qualify for legal aid.
The response to this report by some lawyer organizations and even some judges was predictable. They would have you believe that family law is too complicated for paralegals. Paralegals don’t have the education necessary to represent in court. Paralegals should be supervised by lawyers.
First and foremost, paralegals and the judge who wrote the report just want the people of Ontario to have access to justice. This issue is too important to you for there to be a turf war between lawyers and paralegals.
Paralegals currently provide services in many courts and tribunals. We deal with complex laws and their interpretation every day. Family law would be just one more area to learn and apply the laws.
The lawyer groups are correct that paralegals do not have the education today to work in family court. Courses still need to be developed. Stringent specialized licensing tests still need to be prepared. The lawyers who are specialists in the field should be involved in making sure that the course materials set a high bar for paralegals who want to practise family law. We want to provide you affordable access to justice, but not for the sake of a low quality education.
There are places in Canada and the United States where paralegals operate only under the supervision of lawyers. That has never been the model in Ontario. Paralegals have operated independent of lawyers for decades. They have been regulated and licensed since 2008.
The benefit to the consumer of a paralegal working independent of a lawyer is that the consumer does not receive a lawyer’s hefty bill for work done by a paralegal. It would defeat the intended increased access to justice if paralegals were required to work on family law matters under the supervision of a lawyer. New lawyers are permitted to appear in family court without the supervision of a senior lawyer.
The Ministry of the Attorney General and the law society are developing an action plan as a result of the Family Legal Services report. The action plan will be released by the fall of 2017. You are invited to send feedback based on Justice Bonkalo’s report no later than May 15 to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published March 30, 2017 Copied from Windsor Star