Complacent No More – Paralegals React to AGM Comments

Licensees are responding, in the wake of an often-acrimonious discussion about paralegals at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Annual General Meeting, May 8.
Below are comments and background from three paralegals who attended the AGM. While a motion regarding scope of practice had been withdrawn before the meeting, many in attendance spoke to the issue after the bulk of Law Society business had been dealt with.
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Andrew Hyland

Andrew Hyland, Paralegal

Andrew Hyland has been providing legal services since 2011. He signed the motion and agreed to its wthdrawal. Here are his views on the matter.

On the motion before the Law Society of Upper Canada AGM:

As a signatory to the recent motion that was to be heard this past Wednesday at the Law Society’s Annual General Meeting, I thought that it would be helpful and in the spirit of dialogue within the paralegal community to share my own thoughts and perspective on these recent events.

I signed the motion because I believe that Paralegals can be a major part of the solution to our province’s legal needs—that is to say, I believe that paralegals can and should be leaders in providing Access to Justice through the services we provide to the public. As such, any actions which seeks to strengthen this role, whether it the form of a motion or otherwise, would meet with my support.

Unfortunately, it seems that both before and after the AGM, there remains confusion over what exactly the substance of the motion was about — both from lawyers, as well as paralegals.

To be clear, the motion was not about expanding our Scope of Practice immediately, or without thorough reflection about what that actually would entail, both theoretically or practically. The Motion, as written, called for the Law Society to, in light of the findings of the LSUC’s own studies, and the findings of the independent Morris Report, and I quote:

    “It is resolved that the Law Society of Upper Canada shall, within 30
    days, commission a task force comprised equally of paralegals, lawyers,
    and lay benchers for the purpose of establishing the education, training,
    experience, and other necessary qualifications for paralegals to practice in an expanded scope of practice including but not limited to: immigration
    law; family law; construction liens for matters within the financial
    jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court; super summary offences under the
    Criminal Code of Canada; and Divisional Court appeals of matters that
    are within the current scope of practice for paralegals.”

In other words, it recognized that paralegals, if we wish to actually have an expanded scope of practice, must meet a much more thorough standard than the one currently set by the LSUC; and given that the LSUC is our current regulator, to actually start the process of deciding what those standards should be, and how they should be implemented. Those more experienced than myself know that this is not the first time this issue has been identified — the spirit of the motion was to spur the LSUC into taking action.

It is unfortunate, then, that so many lawyers in attendance at the AGM did not seem to be able to understand this. The majority of comments at the AGM from lawyers consisted of complaints about the inherent dangers of expanding the scope of practice to what lawyers thought to be unworthy persons; the description of all paralegals as being incompetent, uneducated, and even within the shared scope of practice to be unequal to lawyers.

There were several comments made which belied the speaker’s ignorance about who we are as licensees and what our knowledge actually is. In particular, I single out the president of one lawyer’s association who assumed that paralegals did not know how to create factums; another rather condescendingly spoke about the need for paralegals to understand Charter arguments.

In response, I spoke out. I made reference to the fact that paralegals do know how to create factums — in fact, I would state that the majority of paralegals know far more than some of the speakers were willing to acknowledge. In my relatively short tenure as a paralegal, I have met numerous persons with advanced degrees: from B.A.s to LL.Ms. Others have transitioned from other careers and bring with them a wealth of specialized knowledge that can only benefit our profession and the public. Still others are paralegals from the pre-regulation days, who had to learn the craft by themselves — their knowledge is as deep and thorough as any lawyer with comparable experience.

The second point that I raised perhaps raised more hackles than anything. In response to one lawyer’s comment regarding his discomfort with paralegals being considered equal with lawyers, I stated what I thought to be an obvious truth: we are.

For reference, when I say this I do not mean that we have the same scope of practice as lawyers, nor that our knowledge of the law is as thorough as lawyers; lawyers have an unrestricted scope of practice and they possess knowledge of areas of law which we do not. But, within our shared scope of practice, we are exactly equal to lawyers — in the eyes of the LSUC, the Courts and Tribunals, and the public (or rather, we should be). I reference the words spoken by one lawyer who was kind enough to stick around with we paralegals after the AGM and give some advice: We as Paralegals will not argue before the Supreme Court; we cannot argue before the Court of Appeal, or even the full Superior Court. Yet, for what we can do for our clients, we are as much of a lifesaver as any lawyer.

The next part is addressed to my fellow paralegals. I have seen some commentary in forums frequented by paralegals expressing upset at the withdrawal of the motion; some suggest that this strips us of our credibility — that “they” are laughing at us. Still others have stated that those paralegals who signed the motion have embarrassed the profession as a whole. I will address these points in turn.

First, as has been previously stated by other signatories, this was not an easy decision to make. In discussing this matter, I stated that the only way I would sign a withdrawal would be if we as paralegals received some benefit from doing so. I am glad to say that I feel that this is the case. The LSUC has been put on notice, and does recognize that something must be done. In fact, in discussions between motion signatories, the LSUC, and other interested stakeholder groups, it appears that we will begin the processes called for by the motion. In other words, we appear to be in a position to achieve the same objectives as the motion called for. This will quite obviously require major follow-through, but I do regard this as a significant step forward for the profession.

Regarding the issue of credibility: this is a much bigger issue than could ever be solved by a motion. I submit that, for the majority of lawyers in attendance at the AGM, no amount of words would change their opinion of us — if certain lawyers cannot even understand what it is we do already, why should we expect them to take us seriously? Moreover, why should we appeal to such persons who, by the very fact that we hold P1 licenses, regard us with such incivility? Our more pressing concern should be with our credibility with the public. More must be done to raise the public’s awareness of and perception of paralegals. At the end of the day, it is the public who will make or break our profession, not a minority of lawyers.

Lastly, I would like to address the idea that the actions of my colleagues, and myself are embarrassing or an embarrassment to the profession. I ask to those people, quite simply: where were you?

Several of the signatories of the motion have been on the front lines for years fighting for our profession, dating back to before regulation — two of them actually gave submissions before the Ontario Legislature, chasing down MPPs in the halls of Queen’s Park. My own experience within the profession is comparatively limited, and yet I spoke out in front of what turned out to be a hostile audience. I did this because I care about the profession, I want to see it grow, and I want to be a part of a historical shift in the provision of legal services and how the public accesses the justice system.

By no means to I suggest that these critics care less about the profession or about access to justice than myself, or any other signatory to the motion. My point is this — you cannot be silent any more. It does not do anyone any good to sit silently on the sidelines while the same members of the profession — and it is seemingly the same persons time and again — fight for our profession, only to criticize and suggest that we have done the profession harm, when by your own admission, you have done nothing. You are better than that. We are better than that.

As Simon Brown has recently pointed out in his article, posted on his website, we as paralegals need to get our house in order. One of the most disturbing facts brought forward by John Tzanis, President of the Paralegal Society of Ontario, recently was this: a tepid support for the motion, indicative of a lack of a mandate.

What gives us the right to criticize something that we refuse to support openly? We as a profession are nowhere near as unified and organized as we need to be. However uncivil a certain segment of lawyers were at the AGM, however divisive and reactionary their views, they were unified in a way that we were not. The merger of the PSO and LPA into a unified organization is a tremendous step forward, but more is needed. We need to support and actively engage in our organizations in a much greater way than before.

To those who disagreed with the withdrawal of the motion, I ask you to help us out for next time. Get involved, comment and critique—but most of all, do not be silent. Your help is always welcome.

There have been several lessons learned in the aftermath of this year’s AGM. I do not mean to suggest that all lawyers are like those who attended at the AGM; indeed, as Thomas Conway, Treasurer of the Law Society reportedly told a group of paralegal students attending, the views of the lawyers attending are in no way indicative of the 50,000 lawyers in the province. Nor do I wish to be seen as starting an internal row amongst my fellow paralegals; this commentary and the critiques therein are meant to foster a spirit of debate and growth that we as a profession not only need but also must have if we are not only to evolve, but also to survive.

As I stated on Wednesday, it is my hope that moving forward there will be more work done between lawyers and paralegals in the spirit of collegiality in order to address the needs of the public with regards to legal services and access to justice. We are distinct yet equal professions, both within the scope of practice we share with each other, but also in our obligations to the public.

I leave you with one more statistic, found in the Treasurer’s Remarks in the highlights of this year’s annual report — 80% of litigants in this province are unrepresented, and this number is growing. The longer we continue with factional in-fighting, both within our respective professions and within the LSUC as a whole, these persons suffer.

The public deserves better, and we need to give it to them.

Andrew Hyland, H.B.A. is a paralegal and owner of Veritas Legal Services, in Oshawa. Contact Andrew at: andrew.hyland@vlsparalegal.com

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Paralegal Simon Brown

Paralegal Simon Brown

In a carefully crafted article at his website, paralegal Simon Brown weaves together a classical overview. He notes that paralegals appeared unprepared, that too many lawyers regard paralegals as incompetent, and that paralegals ourselves are divided over the future goals and priorities for the profession.

Brown examines these facts and concludes: “When the Attorney General for the Province of Ontario decided that regulation of Paralegals were to be governed by the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Minister created another stake-holder in the justice system. Lawyers do not seem willing to acknowledge that quite yet.”

The AGM discussion over a withdrawn motion marks an awakening among paralegals, who will continue to promote change in the way the public accesses legal service, Brown says.

“Paralegals’ excitement to provide Access to Justice is definitely building. Paralegals have awoken a self-absorbed and complacent legal profession. The name Paralegal must be synonymous with Access to Justice.”

Read Simon Brown’s full article at his website.

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John Tzanis is one of 10 paralegals who had signed the Scope of Practice Motion. He responded to Simon Brown’s article, at a LinkedIn group:
John Tzanis, Paralegal, LSUC

John Tzanis, Paralegal, LSUC

Simon you write very well, you are articulate and thank you for your opinions and insight.

I should confirm that the motion was not a PSO motion, I signed off on it as an independent paralegal. Also, not only did I not believe we had a mandate from our members, I do not believe we had a mandate from paralegals at large. If we did have the mandate or support from paralegals for this motion, they were keeping it to themselves, save a few bloggers on the OPN and PSO Linkedin sites.

As another example of what some might call apathy, most paralegals I have met throughout Ontario seem to support Marian Lippa’s Certiorari Application yet only 22 paralegals showed up at the Newmarket hearing in a large Court room and 12 of them were probably students.

I did consider getting up to speak but as I was contemplating the thought, I realized that even if I had the wisdom of Solomon, my statements might unnecessarily provoke those that opposed the motion and fire up a further debate that was not productive. By the time I wanted to get up to make a statement, it was announced that no more speakers would be permitted. After witnessing/hearing some of the unpleasant acrimony in some of the speeches, save a few excellent speakers (including the OBA President), I thought that was a great decision by the Treasurer.

The motion was withdrawn, I really wish the debate that ended the AGM did not occur. It was not the proper forum to move our position forward, most people that attended had made their minds up, it became apparent that there were not enough moderates in the audience or members that had not yet made up their minds, most were intransigent and there was no swaying them.

There is a proper forum to move our position forward and the PSO and LPA will continue to pursue the proper channels to achieve our member’s goals. We spend hundreds of hours every year on this mission as unpaid volunteers and most of us have very busy offices and family obligations. We are making progress, slower than some of our members would like but I truly believe that the LSUC is taking the David Morris Report’s recommendations seriously.

I did notice something though, that lawyers that oppose expansion of the scope of practice seem to frame their arguments in terms of protecting the public and paralegals that support the expansion of the scope of practice, seem to frame their arguments in terms of providing access to justice. These are both part of the mantra of the LSUC, not individually or separately but together as one mission, one goal.

I also noticed that when I deal with lawyers in business, through the PSO or through my large family and acquaintances, we get along very, very well. We work together and we realize that each of us have an important and integral role in providing justice in the public interest. I would like to believe that the disparate opinions and positions that were present at the AGM do not represent the majority of lawyers and paralegals and we can work together as colleagues in a reasonable and collaborative manner to find common ground and consensus and achieve both goals, protection of the public and to provide wide and affordable access to justice.

One last thing, the PSO and LPA have excellent committees to further paralegal interests, if people really want to effect change, I call upon people to become a member, join our committees, make a sacrifice, contribute, volunteer. I always appreciate some good discussions on our Blogs but I don’t think the public, the Attorney General, the LSUC or the OBA read our Blogs very much and they are the ones that need to hear from us in an articulate, reasoned, well-researched and persuasive fashion.

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One comment

  1. I want to thank all of the contributors to this article. Each was very well written which put their position forward clearly and intelligently.

    It is a shame that many lawyers are unwilling to accept paralegals in their midst. Anger is a symptom of fear and fear is a symptom of ignorance.

    Closing ones mind to the reality of our existence and professionalism amounts to nothing more than “paralegal apartheid”. Bad form.

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