Access to Justice Lip Service

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For all the lip service it pays to access to justice, the Law Society of British Columbia has quietly pushed onto a back burner one of the most promising initiatives for helping ordinary people with their legal troubles.

Rose Singh, vice-president of the B.C. Paralegal Association, said hopes for a robust provincial system of less expensive legal services similar to Ontario’s 10-year-old paralegal scheme have been doused.

“It was really disappointing to us,” she said.

In January 2013, a two-year pilot project was launched in the B.C. Supreme Court and the Provincial Court allowing paralegals under the supervision of a lawyer to appear in select locations on some family-law matters.

The project ended in Supreme Court in December 2014; the Provincial Court soldiered on until October 2015.

Of the province’s roughly 13,000 lawyers, three — THREE — participated, not enough data for the Law Society to conclude that paralegals provided a benefit.

“There’s a number of reasons that initiative didn’t take off as well as it could have,” Singh explained.

“If they had extended it and expanded the scope (beyond family law) … not a lot of lawyers knew what the pilot project was about and what it was supposed to do. And our impression from some of the members of the Law Society was that they were concerned this initiative might take work away from the lawyers.”

It was a bit of bad news for us. Until we are regulated, we can’t open up shop on our own.’ — Rose Singh, B.C. Paralegal Association.

Technically, the overall initiative continues in lawyer’s offices where designated paralegals, who may hold a certificate, diploma or degree, are providing under supervision some legal advice and performing minor legal tasks.

They cannot appear in court and they cannot operate independently.

“Unfortunately,” Singh said, “we got news from the Law Society last year that they weren’t going to look at regulating paralegals. So, it was a bit of bad news for us. Until we are regulated, we can’t open up shop on our own.”

It’s bad news for the public, too, because the worsening access-to-justice crisis is due in part to the monopoly lawyers have on providing legal services.

Their fees make legal representation scarcely affordable for the middle class and poor. And there is no way to provide the kind of legal help they need solely through publicly funded legal aid or the provision of pro bono and other charity.

There is so much unmet demand, the so-called justice deficit, that allowing people other than lawyers to provide legal services is the only way to satisfy it.

The legal monopoly should end.

In medicine, surgeons don’t do flu checkups. A wide range of professionals — nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, chiropractors and others — provide health services.

In 2007, Ontario set up the nation’s first paralegal system regulated by that province’s Law Society of Upper Canada.


As a result, the B.C. legal regulator putatively began inching towards a similar model and approved changes in 2012 to create “designated paralegals” under the lawyer’s Code of Professional Conduct.

In 2013, the society says 345 lawyers reported that they supervised designated paralegals. By 2015 that number had grown to 647 — 180 supervising the maximum of two paralegals.

In Ontario, by comparison, more than 8,000 paralegals handle various proceedings in front of provincial courts and tribunals.

Washington state late last year inaugurated a system of lower-cost, licensed legal technicians who advise and assist people going through divorce, child custody and other family-law matters.

The United Kingdom also allows a wide variety of differently trained individuals to provide legal assistance.

Could it be the hegemony of the Law Society has become a barrier to access to justice and the profession’s apathy is increasing the very justice deficit that lawyers regularly lament?

“I think the reality is that the law needs to change, it needs to come from the top down,” Singh said.

“We’ve worked with the Law Society for the past two or three years and we were really surprised and, you know, quite upset about the outcome of that.”

Singh added that they asked about the supposed regulation of a broader range of independent legal service providers that the Law Society said it was pursuing, but “we haven’t gotten a satisfactory response to that unfortunately.”

Paralegals earn on average about $46,600 — and a recent survey of lawyer’s fees indicated a two-day civil trial will cost a minimum of about $13,500, an uncontested divorce $1,200 and a two-day family law trial nearly $20,000.

The regulator’s response?

“The designated paralegal program is one of many initiatives that the Law Society has implemented over the past few years that improve the ability of lawyers to offer services at a lower cost,” Law Society president Herman Van Ommen said in an e-mail.

“Another initiative is unbundling … By removing regulatory restrictions to allow lawyers to offer more reasonably priced legal services, while maintaining a high level of quality and competency, we are able to improve access to legal services.”

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