Choosing a Criminal Defence Representative, Step One: Lawyer or Paralegal?

For those charged with a criminal offence, choosing a representative is an important and stressful decision. After paralegals became licensed in 2008, before choosing an individual representative, Ontarians can now choose the class of representatives they can and would like to have. So, a lawyer or paralegal?

First off, this depends on the nature of the offence. Paralegals can represent defendants in the criminal court only in summary conviction matters where maximum punishment does not exceed 6 months imprisonment. Some of the criminal charges that may fall in this category are assault, theft (shoplifting) or mischief for under $5,000, possession of under 5 grams of illicit substances, and more. Of note is that after changes to the extent of penalties, impaired driving cases can no longer be handled by paralegals. In some offences, the Crown (prosecution) may choose to proceed “summarily” or not.  If the proceedings are summary, you can hire a paralegal.

If you can, in your case, be represented by a paralegal, the next step is to consider the differences between lawyers and paralegals and make the choice that best suits you. The key differences and similarities are as follows:

  • Paralegals do not attend law school, but complete a paralegal program at an accredited institution
  • Paralegals and lawyers are both licensed by the law society, and are required to comply with the same ethical, professional, educational and accounting standards
  • A paralegal can be excluded from representing you in criminal proceedings if the judge considers him to be incompetent
  • Most of the time, you will need to attend the court with the paralegal, which may not be the case with a lawyer
  • You have the right to be represented by a lawyer and not a paralegal in any circumstance
  • Paralegals cannot accept legal aid
  • If you are unsatisfied with the outcome of your case, you cannot appeal the decision based only on the fact that you were represented by a paralegal, and not a lawyer

That said, paralegals and lawyers all differ in levels of competence and experience, and a paralegal is not less qualified or able to represent you in criminal proceedings just by virtue of being a paralegal. Finally, you must consider the difference in the legal fees charged. Paralegals, as a rule, do not charge hourly rates, and usually work for more affordable flat fees than those charged by lawyers for the same cases.

We hope that this has helped you clarify your options, and please don’t hesitate to contact us to see if you can, in your situation, be represented by a paralegal.

Alex, Toronto

Spectrum made dealing with an unpleasant situation in a criminal court significantly less stressful, and helped me defend myself against unwarranted allegations. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. Thank you so much!