What is a paralegal?
In Ontario, a paralegal is an independent, licensed legal professional, regulated by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC). This means that in Ontario, the paralegal is not just a legal assistant who helps lawyers, as in many jurisdictions, but an individual authorized to independently provide some types of legal services. This means that a paralegal can represent clients in:
- Small Claims Court
- Provincial Offences Court (court that handles traffic tickets and other provincial offences)
- The Landlord and Tenant Board, (which handles tenant evictions)
- Administrative tribunals (which handle things like disability appeals)
- Many matters heard before the Ontario Court of Justice (which handles criminal charges)
Finally, a paralegal is also a Commissioner of Oaths by virtue of his or her office. This means that any paralegal has the power to commission any affidavit. A paralegal cannot, however, notarize documents, which may be required for some applications.
The LSUC has set a number of guidelines to assure that paralegals are competent legal professionals. Therefore, in order to become a paralegal, an individual must:
- Complete an approved college degree
- Complete a field placement facilitated by their college
- Pass the law society examination for paralegals
- Be of good character
- Carry professional liability insurance; and
- Contribute to a fund from which victims of malpractice can be compensated.
The LSUC also maintains a directory of licensed paralegals and handles complaints related to their conduct.
The Difference between Lawyers and Paralegals
A competent paralegal can provide you with high quality legal services, and your case would not be hampered just because your representative is a paralegal and not a lawyer. The major differences between lawyers and paralegals are:
- The scope of practice. Lawyers can represent clients in any legal dispute in any court, while a paralegal can only participate in the types of proceedings described above.
- The scope of education. Lawyers must complete an undergraduate degree and law school, while paralegals have a college education geared specifically to give them the skills necessary to work within their limited scope.
- Paralegals cannot accept legal aid.
Otherwise, paralegals are subject to the same ethical and professional standards as lawyers, and regulated by the same body – the LSUC. What’s more, hiring a paralegal can come with two important benefits:
- Typically, paralegals charge flat (not hourly), lower fees as compared to lawyers.
- A paralegal may even be more experienced in the types of matters he or she handles within the limited scope of practice because the paralegal’s education and experience were both geared towards the type of practice.