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Law society aiming to broaden scope of services for Ontario paralegals, says treasurer

Friday, November 06, 2020 @ 12:45 PM | By John Schofield

The Law Society of Ontario will continue to look at ways to expand the services that paralegals can provide across the province, including through a comprehensive study of the profession that is ongoing, said LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly.

“We’re looking at the education, training and regulatory processes and how that does or doesn’t support paralegals now and in the future,” she told about 160 attendees at a virtual town hall Nov. 4 organized by the Ontario Paralegal Association (OPA). “We want the paralegal profession not only to survive, but to thrive.”

LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly

The law society regulates both lawyers and paralegals in Ontario, and had 9,660 paralegal licensees as of September. Donnelly provided participants with an update on recent changes to legislation and other LSO developments affecting paralegals.

Donnelly said the LSO is studying whether to reduce its annual licence fees for paralegals and lawyers next year to help cushion the financial blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are looking closely at our revenue, at our expenses and the setting of annual fees,” she told the town hall. “I want to assure you that we are aware of the fact that some licensees have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and that especially applies to paralegal members,” she added. “We are looking at what measures we can extend to you and to those members of the professions who need help.”

She noted that annual fees were decreased for 2020 by $109 for paralegals, bringing the annual licensing fee to $1,006, and by $135 for lawyers, for a total fee of $2,066.

Licensed paralegal Robert Burd, chair of the law society’s paralegal standing committee, a founding board member with the OPA and president of Brampton, Ont.-based Not Guilty Plea Paralegal Services, said one issue that the law society’s study of the profession is examining is the attrition rate among paralegals “and, unfortunately, how some of the new licensees are leaving the profession far too soon.”

The pandemic has not helped, he noted, but the trend was spotted even before the pandemic.

Robert Burd, chair of the LSO’s paralegal standing committee

“There’s great concern, and so the paralegal standing committee and the treasurer herself is very committed to reviewing that and finding answers because the last few years there has been stagnant growth in the paralegal profession,” he added. “So we want to ensure we can get back to the point where paralegals were flourishing and we were licensing 1,100 to 1,200 paralegals a year. We want to get back to those types of numbers.”

Donnelly said the advocacy work of the law society is helping to open up new areas for paralegals in Ontario — most recently with the amendment of the provincial Notaries Act last August to allow paralegals to be appointed as notaries in the same manner as lawyers.

“We wholeheartedly supported these amendments, which increase access to notary services for Ontarians,” she said. “Paralegals who would like to provide notary public services across Ontario must submit an application form and receive a certificate of appointment from the Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services before they provide notary public services.”

Donnelly noted that the Ontario Justices of the Peace Act was also amended in August to make paralegal licensees eligible for membership on the Justices of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee (JPAC) and she encouraged paralegals to apply through the LSO.

For paralegals in the immigration field, Donnelly said the law society is working to help them shift to a new regulatory regime, as the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC) transitions to a new regulatory body, the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants, which will have stronger regulatory and enforcement powers.

Under the new regime, expected to come into effect next year, Ontario paralegals applying to qualify as immigration consultants for the first time will have to meet new educational requirements, but paralegals who previously qualified as immigration consultants will be grandparented, she said.

Paralegals wishing to qualify as new immigration consultants will have to complete a diploma program offered by Queen’s University, but entry will require an undergraduate degree or equivalent, said Donnelly

“Recognizing that many paralegals do not have undergraduate degrees,” she added, “the law society is working with ICCRC to find a solution that recognizes the education and training that licensed paralegals in Ontario have in this area.”

Donnelly referred to ongoing litigation that is challenging the law society’s authority to regulate licensed paralegals in the area of immigration law, but “as the law society is a party to these proceedings, I won’t be speaking about them.”

Paralegals will also have the potential to expand into family law if the law society’s proposed family legal services provider (FLSP) licence is approved by Convocation, she told the town hall. The law society’s Access to Justice Committee is accepting comments on the FLSP licensing model until Nov. 30. Obtaining the licence would involve a “rigorous” training and accreditation program, she noted.

“The development of this family law services provider licence is intended to help address a gap in family law services and increase access to justice for Ontarians when they need it most,” added Donnelly. “Should the new licence be developed, this could mean expanded scope for paralegals who opt for additional education and accreditation.”

In other developments, Donnelly said the Ontario government’s introduction of a new contingency fee regime, which goes into effect July 1, 2021, will allow paralegals for the first time to provide services through contingency fee agreements.

“So how is this supportive of licensees?” she asked. “It enables costs to be part of the base amount used to calculate contingency fees. The standard form contingency agreement removes regulatory burden, uncertainty and risk by no longer requiring licensees to have to draft their own agreement, and the standard form makes it easier for potential clients to learn about and understand their rights on their own and in a consistent manner, thus reducing the burden on licensees.”

Under Bill 161, the Smarter and Stronger Justice Act, 2020, which received royal assent in July, Donnelly noted that the law society now has the power to regulate firms and will be consulting on the issue and developing the framework for firm regulation in the coming months.

“We believe that firm regulation will benefit all involved, from the public to the clients to individual licensees and to the law society itself,” she said. “Benefits for firms include streamlining the regulatory and reporting processes and reducing red tape.”

In closing, Donnelly said that 2,200 lawyers and paralegals have been licensed during the pandemic and that details on an event to recognize them will be forthcoming. She also encouraged attendees to nominate candidates for the William J. Simpson Distinguished Paralegal Award and the J. Shirley Denison Award.

In his remarks, Burd provided some history of the OPA and celebrated the profession’s embrace of diversity and inclusion, noting that 65 per cent of paralegals in Ontario today are women and almost 40 per cent are racialized, compared with about 30 per cent for the province’s overall population. He also told attendees that several local law associations now welcome paralegals as members, including the Waterloo Region Law Association, the Halton County Law Association and the Carleton County Law Association.

Speakers also included OPA president George Brown, former OPA president Stephen Parker and Elaine Page, founder of Thornhill, Ont.-based Page Paralegal, who spoke on small claims court virtual hearings.

Brown noted that the OPA is currently developing an online legal library service for members, which will be accessible anytime and available for a low-cost monthly subscription. It is also working to improve placements for paralegal students and is examining ways to better promote the profession. He said OPA membership currently stands at about 950 licensees, student members and associate members.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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