A five-year review by the Law Society of Upper Canada that has labelled paralegal regulation in Ontario a success is “far removed” from the truth, according to at least one paralegal.
Paralegal critic Marshall Yarmus says the law society failed to ask the tough questions as part of the review and argues it does little to evaluate the day-to-day struggles of the thousands of people affected by the relatively new regulatory regime.
“The paralegals I’ve spoken to are not happy,” says Yarmus, a former vice president of the Paralegal Society of Ontario and owner of Civil Litigations in Toronto.
The LSUC’s paralegal standing committee presented the review to Attorney General John Gerretsen at Convocation on June 28. It details feedback from members of the public who have used paralegal services, lawyers, paralegals, stakeholders, and legal organizations on the law society’s regulation of paralegals over the past five years.
The review found 71 per cent of those who provided feedback believed the law society has been successful in regulating paralegals over the past five years. By comparison, 68 per cent of paralegals said they were satisfied with the overall progress of the law society’s regulation to date.
The review defined success based on several factors that included whether or not the law society had created a fair and transparent licensing process for paralegal applicants and whether or not the public was able to access competent paralegal services following the law society’s regulation and licensing of paralegals in 2007.
According to the law society, there were 2,892 paralegal licensees in Ontario as of May 7, 2010. But that hasn’t translated into a more affordable or accessible justice system or resulted in graduating paralegals being able to find work, says Yarmus. He says the review should have considered those day-to-day struggles more closely in order to paint an accurate picture of the law society’s regulatory successes and failures so far.
“The review says 51 per cent of people thought regulation increased access to justice. I would say it’s been the exact opposite. Regulation has decreased the number of services paralegals can perform, particularly in family court. I was disappointed to see the review didn’t even ask what people thought of losing those services.”
The law society began regulating paralegals in 2007 at the request of the Ontario government. Prior to that, paralegals often assisted clients with less complicated legal matters, including drafting family law documents and drafting uncontested divorces.
Yarmus says that often helped to reduce the number of self-represented litigants in family court and provided the public with a greater array of legal services at more affordable prices.
But since 2007, Yarmus says paralegals have faced the threat of prosecution for providing the same services, which often leaves clients with few options in family court. “It’s very frustrating for clients to try to fill out what are often complicated legal forms, and I would argue it has contributed to the court’s chaos rather than increased access to justice.”
But not all paralegals agree with Yarmus.
Melissa Weber, a paralegal at Triumph Litigation in Maple, Ont., says the regulation of paralegal services was necessary and will likely create more options for clients as the paralegal profession continues to adapt and grow under the changes.
“When I look at what paralegals were doing back then, I think, thank God for these regulations,” she says. “I mean, paralegals had a bad reputation for a reason. There was a lot of fraud and dishonesty out there. In the end, though, it’s really up to us. I think if we can show that we are up to par, then we’ll likely be able to expand the scope of our practices. But we have to show that we can first.”
Paul Dray, a paralegal at Paul Dray Legal Services Professional Corp. in Limehouse, Ont., added during Convocation that the majority of paralegals have always looked at regulation favourably.
“Paralegals always wanted regulation, but it was who was going to regulate them,” said Dray. “That was the question.”
He added: “Regulating paralegals has always been a bit like herding cats. So, I want to thank the government and the law society for the work they’ve done. It’s something we can all be proud of.”
According to the law society’s review, 62 per cent of paralegals said they were satisfied with their current scope of practice while the remainder believed it should expand to include services like those noted by Yarmus.
According to the law society’s bylaws, paralegals can represent someone at the Small Claims Court, at the Ontario Court of Justice under the Provincial Offences Act, on some summary conviction offences where the maximum penalty doesn’t exceed six months in jail, and before administrative tribunals.
The review indicates the law society expects to hold consultations on the expansion of paralegal services in the future. It has yet to determine a specific date for when the consultations may happen.
Until then, Weber says the law society has plenty to focus on. She says one aspect of the law society’s paralegal regulatory scheme over the past five years has been “very irresponsible.”
“An incredible amount of money is being spent on new graduates coming into the field, but no help is being given to the existing firms to support them,” she says. “We’re churning out these new graduates and they have nowhere to go. They have a valid argument in expecting to make $40,000 out of the gate and I’d love to hire them, but really, we as a profession are asking them to work under minimum wage because we just can’t support them financially.”
According to the review, 604 licensed paralegals graduated from 22 colleges providing paralegal courses across the province last year.
Yarmus says he worries about the impact those graduates may have on the paralegal profession in the long term if they’re unable to find work.
“I really question who is promising all these new graduates jobs,” says Yarmus. “I mean, should 22 colleges really be allowed to do this?”
According to the review, he’s not alone. Feedback from paralegals indicated the paralegal programs need more rigorous standards and a possible prerequisite of two years of college education to help curb the rising number of graduates.
A review of at least four paralegal programs in Ontario shows a high school diploma and Grade 12 English are often necessary for entry to the two-year program. The curriculum includes computer-related studies, an ethics and professionalism course, and classes in specific areas of law.
Cheryl Sereny, senior vice president of the Paralegal Society of Ontario, says both issues are on the organization’s radar.
“We really are seeing history in the making,” says Sereny. “We want to make sure that we are doing our due diligence and ensuring competency in our profession. We’re attempting to eat an elephant, and I know things aren’t moving as quickly as some may like, but the cogs are turning and we are working to make sure we do our due diligence while brining a voice to the paralegal community in a way that is respectful and courteous of the relationship we are building with the law society.”