Ontario paralegals who earn a “specialized licence in family law” should provide limited legal services in family matters. This is in the best interests of the public. So says Justice Annemarie Bonkalo, in a long-awaited report.
Released March 6, the Family Legal Services Review‘s 21 recommendations mark the first step towards opening up the Paralegal Scope of Practice in Ontario. That scope of limited services has not changed in the 10 years since paralegal licensing became law.
Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada are gathering public feedback online until May 15, 2017. Plans are to release an action plan by fall 2017. It could lead to creating a special licence that would allow paralegals to provide certain types of family legal services, such as custody and divorces that do not involve property.
~ Paralegal Elaine Page
“We know that navigating the family justice system can be difficult and confusing – especially when you don’t have access to qualified legal help,” Minister of the Attorney General Naqvi said. “I am committed to working with our partners in the justice sector and the federal government to help families get the help they need.”
Justice Bonkalo consulted with dozens of groups and individuals from across the legal community, as well as those representing the interests of families in the justice system.
Senior paralegal Elaine Page was the only paralegal invited to the Review advisory committee. She points out that legal licensing is about serving and protecting the public. The Bonkalo Report is grounded in that. “These recommendations are based on the needs of the people of Ontario. It is not about paralegals, per se. It is about the fact that there are people who have a desperate need for access to justice.”
The fact that paralegals have been licensed, regulated, subject to discipline, and covered by mandatory insurance for a decade played a large role in the recommendations. Professor Noel Semple, an access to justice advocate, has said the existing licensing scheme makes incremental scope expansion a logical step: “The key question today is whether and how the benefits of regulated paralegal services can be extended to more people with legal needs.
Page says credit for the recommendations belongs to paralegal professionals who “get out there and be awesome every day,” in courthouses and hearing rooms. “We didn’t just open the door a crack,” she said. “We kicked it in.”
Calls for expanded paralegal practice are typically followed by acrimony from some lawyers and law groups. The Bonkalo Report recognizes this, noting: “There are few subjects that cause more controversy within the family justice community than the provision of legal services by paralegals.”
The Report relates examples of paralegal advocacy competence in tribunals, and during a Legal Aid Ontario pilot project. Page suggests that continued recognition of paralegals providing excellent advocacy to the public will be the driving factor behind any expanded scope.
Law Society Treasurer Paul Schabas called the report an “important reminder that the family justice system in Ontario needs to evolve to ensure the public has timely access and competent representation.”
Page has worked as a paralegal for 25 years, operating Page Paralegal and PREP Network. A previous recipient of the Law Society’s Distinguished Paralegal Award, she has collaborated with lawyers on projects that included updating the Rules of the Small Claims Court.
Page said the Review discussions were “thoughtful and meaningful, and a chance to better inform members of the bar about the paralegal scope of practice.” Where lawyers and the judiciary work directly with paralegals, they tend to see paralegals as competent, dedicated professionals, Page said. “As a community, we paralegals could do a better job of letting lawyers know our capabilities. A lawyer who practises in family law wouldn’t necessarily know that this is who we are and what we can do.”
Justice Bonkalo’s report also recommends greater use of unbundled services and coaching by lawyers, and ongoing services provided by law students.
Learn more about the paralegal scope of practice: Do I Need a Paralegal?