Depending which licensee category one is in, paralegals are either over-reaching, incompetent bullies who put lives, liberty and access to justice at risk — or professional legal services providers whose recognized expertise justifies a wider scope of practice and greater respect.
The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Annual General meeting, May 8, brought out hundreds of licensees who spoke to the issue of expanding the Paralegal Scope of Practice. A motion related to the issue had been withdrawn the night before, but nonetheless prompted a strong turnout by both supporters and opposition.
Paralegals, lawyers and members of legal organizations such as the Ontario Bar Association, Family Lawyers Association, Refugee Lawyers Association, Paralegal Society of Ontario and the Licensed Paralegals Association, attended the AGM. Many were prompted by the Motion which had been added to the agenda in April.
Thomas Conway, Treasurer, chaired the meeting. With deliberate understatement, he noted “This is not a typical AGM.” Expecting a large turnout, the location had been changed to the Osgoode Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel.
Paralegal Susan Koprich was one of 10 signatories to the Motion. Paralegals and lawyers are “equal but different,” Koprich told the AGM. She urged members of the OBA to work with the paralegal organizations to improve access to justice. Doing so would avoid the need for future scope-of-practice motions, she added.
Ontario Bar Association president Morris Chochla had been involved in encouraging the Motion be withdrawn. He told the AGM that co-operation between the two groups of licensees is essential for meaningful access to justice. He noted that Law Society committees are the appropriate forum to discuss the paralegal scope of practice.
His co-operative sentiment was in the minority among lawyers who spoke to the issue.
The non-paralegal members were passionate in their opposition. Comments included: that paralegals must be “supervised” to protect susceptible immigrants against possible torture and death caused by paralegal incompetence; that paralegals cannot do any immigration work; that lawyers have never been consulted about paralegal licensing; and that paralegals are “forcing their will” on the 40,000 lawyer-members of the Law Society.
Treasurer Conway made an effort to take the sting out of such statements from the floor. “All licensees are equal in the eyes of the Law Society,” he said, and was met with jeers and shouts of “No!”
The motion had been withdrawn the afternoon before the AGM, but that news was slow to filter out. The reasons were not made public until the day of the meeting. Paralegal Society of Ontario president, John Tzanis, addressed the reasons for withdrawal in SCOPE. Tzanis cited a lack of unified support among paralegals, the current efforts of Law Society committees, such as the Paralegal Standing Committee, and concerns of exacerbating animosity between the two categories of licensee.
The eleventh-hour withdrawal itself prompted negative comments from both lawyers and paralegals, who had come from Northern and Southwestern Ontario, and across the GTA, to speak to and vote on the Motion.
Canadian Lawyer Magazine reports that response on Twitter to the Motion’s withdrawal was swift. A number of lawyers commented that if the reason for taking it off the table was the mobilization of the bar against the motion, “It shows the inherent conflict of having one regulator for both lawyers and paralegals.”
The Family Lawyers Association credits itself for “forcing the withdrawal” of a similar motion a few years ago, and roused attendance Wednesday night. “Spread the word, be there and loud!” it urged members at its website recently.
“If Ontario benchers/lawyers mobilized against it, that is a massive conflict for the Law Society,” one lawyer tweeted. “And exactly why LSUC has no business regulating paralegals in the first place.”
According to the Law Times, lawyers had vowed to oppose the motion. “Family and immigration law groups are already expressing their vehement opposition to a motion they say will dilute the standards in their practice areas.”
Virginia Selemidis, a paralegal candidate, was among a group of students who made the trip for the AGM. She says Treasurer Conway approached them after the meeting.
“Conway wanted us to know that the feelings expressed by the lawyers at the meeting were a voice of the minority of the overall membership,” Selemidis says. “He urged us not to get discouraged as the Law Society valued the paralegals, as do several other lawyers.”
Echoing other comments, Selemidis adds, “I think the strategy of presenting the motion was not a good idea as it conjured up a lot of ill feelings and anger. It created an ‘us and them’ syndrome which is not a good start to any change.”
Addressing access to justice has been an added mandate for the Law Society, as a result of provincial legislation that created paralegal licensing, Conway said. Access to justice is just one challenge facing the Society, he noted, with alternative business structures and technological support among the other large priority areas.
Six priorities are identified in the 2012 Annual Report. They are: