It only took seven years of fighting with the Law Society of Upper Canada to get it to take the first steps towards allowing paralegals to offer some family law services.
The Law Society is the regulator of lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.
It is required to regulate in the public interest and to facilitate access to justice.
Most people wouldn’t pick a fight with their regulator; an organization that has the ability to suspend or revoke their licence.
I am not like most people.
On Dec. 1, 2017, the Law Society’s board of directors approved an action plan which included developing a specialized licence for paralegals with appropriate training to offer some family law services.
This licence will support training in such areas as navigating the court process, form completion, investigating forms, motions to change, uncontested divorces and possibly other areas outside the courtroom context.
At the same time, the Law Society will assess what additional family law services paralegals can offer, including advocacy inside the courtroom, and consider how to develop a further expanded licence.
What led to this announcement?
I and other paralegals were receiving calls from people who had family law disputes, but did not have the money to hire a lawyer.
In 2010, I scheduled a motion to be heard at the Law Society’s annual general meeting.
It asked the Law Society to study the barriers to allowing paralegals to offer some family law services.
I debated family law lawyers on this issue on radio and television.
Ultimately, the motion was withdrawn prior to being heard based on a commitment to study the issue.
In February, 2011 the elected leader of the Law Society announced she would undertake a study to determine if paralegals should be allowed to do family law work.
Only one report was released before the initiative was abandoned.
In 2013, I again led a group of paralegals who scheduled a motion to be heard at the Law Society’s annual general meeting.
Hundreds of lawyers showed up to oppose this non-binding vote, only to find the motion had been withdrawn hours earlier.
Since 2013, I have written a number of newspapers articles criticizing the Law Society for failing to address this issue.
Some family lawyers argued family law was too complicated for paralegals to handle.
They said paralegals could handle small claims court, landlord and tenant board and provincial offences cases, and represent people in other courts and tribunals, but not family law where the stakes were too high.
In 2016, the Attorney General and the Law Society appointed Justice Annemarie Bonkalo to study the issue and write a report.
Justice Bonkolo made 31 recommendations to improve the family court system, including having paralegals with a special licence being allowed to prepare forms and do some family court advocacy work.
Following Justice Bonkalo’s report the Law Society and the Attorney General began to develop an action plan.
The Dec. 1, 2017 approval of this action plan marked the beginning of the path towards the public having an option of legal providers for family law matters.
It will take time to develop the curriculum and train paralegals in family law.
However, I am proud to have been one of the main motivators for the Law Society to address this lack of access to justice issue.