Access to justice: the value of paralegals
When it comes to legal representation and advice, Ontarians have two options: hire a lawyer or enlist the services of a paralegal.
Many people still aren’t aware of the range of services paralegals provide or the types of legal situations where it may be beneficial.
What is a paralegal?
Paralegals are licensed, trained legal professionals who are regulated by the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), the same regulatory body for lawyers. They provide legal services in very specific areas as governed under the Law Society Act.
In its consultation paper of 2004, Regulating Paralegals: A Proposed Approach, the LSO says “It is generally recognized that paralegals can play a useful access-to-justice role in Ontario by providing assistance to individuals who, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to hire a lawyer. From an access-to-justice perspective, there are advocacy areas where it can be difficult to obtain the services of a lawyer, such as landlord and tenant cases and Small Claims Court — demonstrating a clear requirement to meet public demand.”
Paralegals have been regulated by the LSO since May 1, 2007 and as such, can help Ontarians navigate their way through various areas of the legal system.
What do paralegals really do?
Paralegals provide advice, representation, guidance and support in cases heard before the Ontario Court of Justice (provincial offences, summary criminal convictions and municipal bylaws), Small Claims Court, or through a number of tribunals and boards. With this in mind, you may choose a paralegal to assist you in matters such as the following:
- contractual disputes
- damage to property
- property trespassing
- statutory accident benefits
- landlord and tenant disputes
- human rights (discrimination and harassment)
- blind persons’ rights
- causing a disturbance
- cruelty to animals
- mischief regarding property
- traffic offences
- consumer protection
- excessive noise
- debt recovery
- employment and labour relations
- theft under $5,000 or possession of stolen property under $5,000
- fraud, forgery, making false statements
- appeals before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
- compensation for victims of crime
- Ontario Special Education appeals
Small Claims Court
Handling Small Claims Court cases is one of the most popular areas of practice for paralegals. If you are suing, or are being sued, for money or the return of personal property valued at $25,000 or less, a paralegal can provide advice and represent you in court.
Let’s look at a typical Small Claims Court scenario: You enter into a formal agreement with a contractor to do some repairs at a cost of $20,000. The services you agreed on were either not performed or not fully completed. You had initially given the contractor a $10,000 down payment but refused to pay the balance because of the substandard job. The contractor then sues you for the remaining amount. What do you do?
This is one of those situations where you may firmly believe you need a lawyer or, if you can’t afford one, you may choose to represent yourself. The wealth of information available at our fingertips today may also play a part in your decision to self-represent. However, this is a great example of a case where you do not necessarily require the services of a lawyer, but also don’t need to do it on your own. A paralegal can help by providing legal advice and/or representing you in the case.
Often, we rely on information obtained from American court dramas on TV, or we access similar resources from the internet considering it to be very helpful content. The reality is this is not at all how it plays out in our courtrooms. You may, therefore, end up in a position where you risk losing your case for reasons such as not knowing exactly how to present the relevant law and the facts to the judge or effectively questioning witnesses from the other side who may have secured legal representation.
In addition to the stress the process can cause, a losing party can also end up having to pay the opposing side’s representation fee as well as satisfying the judgment made against them if there is one.
It has often been said that the complex nature of our legal system, along with the associated costs, can truly become that which bars access to justice for many. Paralegals have and will continue to play a crucial role in providing access to justice for Ontarians.