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Unauthorized practice on the rise

|Written By Michael McKiernan

The Law Society of Upper Canada says it’s taking action in response to a dramatic increase in the number of complaints about the unauthorized practice of law.

‘We have noted that certain individuals are targeting particular communities and exploiting those communities’ lack of familiarity with the law society’s regulatory role,’ says Malcolm Heins.

The law society, which is responsible for preventing the unauthorized practice of law in Ontario, says the number of new complaints tripled between 2007, when there were 143 of them, and 2009, when it ballooned to 445.

The total fell to 330 last year, largely thanks to the decision to hive off complaints about paralegals who go beyond their allowed scope of practice. When that tally is included, the number of complaints for 2010 was 398.

Law society CEO Malcolm Heins puts the increase down to the 2006 changes to the Law Society Act. The amendments “expanded the law society’s mandate to regulate paralegals, reduced the number of legal services which could be provided without a licence, and increased the law society’s ability to prosecute unauthorized practice,” Heins says.

When the law society began regulating paralegals in 2007, the new rules permitted them to appear before certain courts and tribunals, and some of the evidence suggests the spike in complaints could be due in part to licensees getting protective over their new territory and turning in those without the proper credentials.

“Anecdotal evidence from our investigators indicates that recent complaints involving unlicensed individuals, in particular those practising in Small Claims Court, provincial offences court, and administrative tribunals, have originated mainly with licensees, both lawyers and paralegals,” Heins says, noting that complaints also come from the public, the judiciary, and tribunals.

A recent report on the issue submitted to Convocation showed that the number of complaints in the first quarter of 2011 was down to 61. The number was 74 after including complaints about paralegals, a decrease over the last quarter and the equivalent period in 2010.

“We have made significant progress in addressing [unauthorized practice] and in my view, the issue . . . is under control,” wrote report author Zeynep Onen, the law society’s director of professional regulation.

Onen noted that a number of complaints involve paralegals continuing to advertise or offer services in family law, an area of practice they lost when the law society took over regulation.

“Some such services are offered under the pretext of ‘mediation,’ but without affording the parties the opportunity to have the mediated agreement, typically drafted on the spot by the mediator himself or herself, reviewed independently by each party’s lawyer,” she wrote.

The law society deals with complaints about paralegals and lawyers who practise while suspended through the disciplinary process rather than before the courts.

Just last month, it disbarred David Robert Conway of Toronto for continuing to practise while suspended after running into trouble over his failure to register discharges for clients and ignoring correspondence from other lawyers. It also ordered him to pay $5,000.

A number of paralegals have also faced problems for straying too far into the territory of lawyers. Earlier this year, Suzy De Jesus Dos Santos lost her appeal of the decision to deny her a paralegal licence. The hearing panel said it was disturbed by her “cavalier and nonchalant” attitude to the offence.

“Her actions created problems for some of her clients rather than helping them,” wrote panel chairman Ross Murray.

Meanwhile, one of the most high-profile cases of paralegals practising beyond their scope continues to rumble through the law society’s disciplinary process.

On May 31, an appeal panel allowed former North Bay, Ont., councillor and paralegal Maureen Boldt to continue practising until her appeal of a decision to deny her a paralegal licence can be heard.

Boldt served four months under house arrest in 2007 for contempt of court for the unauthorized practice of law after preparing a separation agreement. The original law society panel found Boldt was “ungovernable,” posed a public risk, and had “no moral compass.”

The law society also has the power to prosecute non-licensees for unauthorized practice under the Provincial Offences Act. According to Onen’s report, the LSUC has preferred to steer away from prosecutions in favour of less expensive permanent injunctions by the Superior Court that are enforceable through civil contempt proceedings if necessary.

Included among non-licensees are lawyers who have previously been disbarred but continue to hold themselves out as able to practise. Late last year, Lee Fingold was found guilty of 12 counts under the Provincial Offences Act related to the unauthorized practice of law 14 years after his disbarment for misappropriating funds from his real estate practice.

He now markets himself on his web site as The Blessed Paralegal and claims he helps people prepare to represent themselves in court. “If you want Blessed Advice, not legal advice, please do call me,” he writes.

Cases such as Fingold’s are rare, according to Onen’s report. Between 2008 and 2010, just eight cases were referred for prosecution and there were a further 10 applications for permanent injunctions.

In 2010, as part of its efforts to tackle the large increase in cases, the law society began to send all of its complaints about unauthorized practice, even less serious ones, to its investigations department. According to Heins, the concerted effort has made a difference.

“We eventually determined that it is preferable to maintain all [unauthorized practice] complaints in one department in order to be able to consistently follow up where the informal resolutions do not work and to develop expertise in investigative approaches that are unique to [such] cases,” he says.

When there is a complaint, the law society takes an escalating approach to the alleged offender. While cease-and-desist letters are often enough to halt the practice, the LSUC asks those who persist to sign an undertaking not to continue. If that request is unsuccessful, the law society initiates court proceedings.

According to the LSUC, an emerging trend concerns unauthorized practitioners targeting ethnic or multicultural communities. Onen’s report notes that those types of practices may be underrepresented in the complaints figures because people may feel reluctant to report members of their own community.

“We have noted that certain individuals are targeting particular communities and exploiting those communities’ lack of familiarity with the law society’s regulatory role,” Heins says. “We are in the process of undertaking a targeted communication effort to provide information to the public about how they can find out if the representative they wish to retain is properly licensed.”

For related content, see "Paralegal gets four months house arrest."

  • lluvia75
    When the client tries to ask why he hasn't returned calls or messages, he is deftly ignored and when he ask what about the credit you said you'd give back he's ignored. And when the old invoice showing a lesser amount is procured, it is ignored and the paralegal keep referring only to the new invoice.
    This person is my best friend, he doesn't speak english very well, and I wish I could help him because I feel ashamed that some one that is trusted can be so callous, specially when he is doing this to some one of his own community, and he doesn't speak English very well. Please advice.
  • lluvia75
    An appointment was asked of the paralegal to discuss the fees, since the client had been advised that he would get money refunded if service canceled. There is a witness who can testify to this since he was present with the client. Second witness comes in where the client is once again told that he will receive credit for the 1200 that he was suppose to receive back. Every one agrees and client is happy. Four months pass, and message after message is left, Reception keeps saying he"s not in the office or that he went home, messages go unreturned for the four months until client makes a surprise visit and is told he's not available once again, but decides to hide until he can see the paralegal and goes and surprises him. He's told he will be seen, 2 hrs later he is finally invited to a board room to discuss the problem and he is given a new set of invoice this time adding services which add up to the total credit of 1200. Thus he is not owed anything.
  • lluvia75
    Hi, any advice on how to expose a firm that has over charged a client on a service that was canceled? The paralegal was was instructed to cancel the service back in Feb, client didn't hear from the paralegal until June and finally received an invoice for over $2,875. An appointment was asked of the paralegal to discuss the fees, since the client had been advised that he would get money refunded if service canceled. There is a witness who can testify to this since he was present with the client. Second witness comes in where the client is once again told that he will receive credit for the 1200 that he was suppose to receive back. Every one agrees and client is happy. Four months pass, and messHi, any advice on how to expose a firm that has over charged a client on a service that was canceled? The paralegal was was instructed to cancel the service back in Feb, client didn't hear from the paralegal until June and finally received an invoice for over $2,875.

    part 1 0f 2
  • Ron Payne
    The only reason for all this nonsense is greed and so the corruption of the court system itself will never be exposed.
  • Sensai
    The problem is that LSUC issued those paralegals with the licenses looking identical to the lawyers' except a " P" . I heard that some of paralegals flash their licenses to potential clients & make them believe they are lawyers. After all, LSUC is translated into Chinese as the Ontario Lawyers' Association. In Chinese newspapers, some paralegals refer themselves as LAW OFFICE - registered member of the Ontario Lawyers' Association. LSUC opens a new can of worms
  • ONPara
    If a Paralegal has been licensed by the LSUC, they have every right to call their place of business a law office, because that's what it is. What do you think they are practising in?

    Just for a note. The requirement to become a Paralegal through a community college usually takes 3 yrs. Therefore, the only general difference between the legal education of a Paralegal and a Lawyer by time, is one year.
    They deserve the recognition for their sacrifice and hard work, just as a Lawyer does.
  • Ruth Nippi
    To ONpara:

    What world do you live in? What college offering paralegal training takes 3 years? Most in fact are 1 year or less and no articling requirement or 7 hour bar examinations or 10 months law firm experience requirement! Why would someone opt a 3 year college program instead of 3 year law school program and 10 months articling and 7 hours of bar exams? Likely because they are too simple to realize they are being ripped off or not competent enough to pass the entry exams or bar exams....period. All that glitters in your 'paralegal' world is not gold! Wake up and don't diss lawyer's! Oh and by the way, Paralegals are restricted to administrative, small claims, POA, and summary criminal offences with no more penalty than 6 months! Serious limitations to be holding yourself out to be just as bonified and qualified as a Lawyer!
  • dee
    In fact, paralegal's degree program is 4 years not 1 as you stated. You must not be informed enough so let me ask "what world do you live in"? They have an opportunity to be in a paid co-op program, which helps them to gain that experience while being in school NOT after they are done school. Paralegals go through licensing exam in order to get a license and be able to practice. So yes, do not speak out loud if you do not have enough true information.
  • Willy
    Ruth Nippi,

    You sound a little bitter and perhaps a little threatened as well. ONpara, makes some very valid points. While paralegals may not spend as much time in academia as lawyers, they do have to spend at least two years becoming qualified, then approximately one month of placement and a 3 hour LSUC exam that has mainly to do with ethics. Good paralegals will not hold themselves out as lawyer and will adhere the rules set down for them by the LSUC. Conversely good lawyers are not threatened by paralegals and will recognize their value. Paralegals are trained to be able to practice in areas that most lawyers find beneath their abilities. Lawyers who feel threatened by paralegals may want to refocus their valuable skills and education into the areas of the law that will give them more intellectual stimulation and a better return on investment for the said skills and education and let the paralegals take care of the areas that they are trained in.
  • MrSmallClaimsCourt
    It is definitely unfortunate that there are people who are attempting to undermine the good work performed by those who worked hard to become licensed by the law Society. I am confident that paralegals who have gone through the rigorous requirements of becoming licensed will continue to show everyone that they have earned their place and should be trusted by clients in need of valuable legal advice.
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