Community editorial board: The value of paralegals within our justice system

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In Ontario we have two types of legal representatives that can go to our courts and give legal advice to clients.

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Lawyers can go to any court, tribunal etc., whereas a paralegal has certain limitations on their scope of practice which means they can only go to where they are permitted.

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Lawyers can provide legal advice on any legal matter, whereas a paralegal can only provide legal advice in certain areas of the law.

Ontario’s paralegals can practise independently of a lawyer’s supervision and many do, although many other paralegals work for lawyers. Most of us understand what a lawyer can do for us, and we use them as needed.

What can a paralegal do for you?

A paralegal can attend and advise on Provincial Offences Court matters which include the Highway Traffic Act, municipal bylaws, the Dog Owners Liability Act, and C.V.O.R. (trucking) matters among others. The paralegal can also attend most Ontario boards and tribunals, which includes the Landlord and Tenant Board, the Human Rights Tribunal, and Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, among many others.

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There are over 100 boards and tribunals a paralegal can attend.

Both lawyers and paralegals are governed by the Law Society of Ontario and a paralegal must have a licence from the law society.

If you want to become a paralegal you need to take paralegal courses at either a college that provides them, or at certain private colleges. After having completed the required courses, a prospective paralegal has to pass a law society exam that is quite comprehensive and lengthy. Once that is done the paralegal needs to do a relatively short stint in a legal office in order to gain practical experience. Once this is completed, a paralegal can open their own practice, work with other paralegals, work for a lawyer, or become a researcher for the federal government, among other options.

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So why would anyone hire a paralegal when one can hire a lawyer who can do everything a paralegal does?

One is a question of cost. While both professions have expensive fees, a paralegal is usually substantially less expensive than a lawyer. One area where paralegals are sought after is in the Highway Traffic Act’s sphere. Also, since this where many paralegals practise, they generally have a very good grasp of the law. They can generally predict the usual outcome and can advise you on the best course of action. There is also the advantage of them going to court for you and handling everything on your behalf. This is especially advantageous if you were charged in a jurisdiction far away from where you live.

In highway traffic matters it is especially important to be able to reduce the demerit points as this can affect your insurance rates and if you have too many demerit points, you can lose your licence. As I am a retired paralegal, I can attest there are some very good paralegals practising in the traffic area, who are extremely good at running trials, some of which are quite complex.

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You can go onto the law society’s web site and find a paralegal in the lawyer and paralegal directory. A good way of deciding which paralegal you want to hire is by contacting the paralegal directly and asking him or her a number of pertinent questions regarding your case and see whether their answers fit with what you want.

Another area of law where paralegals are successfully practising is in landlord and tenant matters. In Cornwall, there are number of paralegals who are experts in handling landlord and tenant matters. The tenants can generally get free legal advice from the legal aid clinic if they have minimal working income or if they receive either Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program benefits whereas landlords can call a toll-free number for information—but they either have to hire a lawyer or paralegal to represent them or do it themselves.

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Most cases are related to evictions, but there are others related to maintenance issues, illegal entry to the units, destruction of property, negligence, and a myriad of other issues. Many of the more complex issues are resolved through mediation and the board provides excellent independent mediators. In these cases, a seasoned paralegal can assist as he or she has experience in resolving matters. The same goes for trials as there are quite a few rules that need to be followed and a seasoned paralegal understands these and this knowledge can assist the client.

The adjudicator does not have to follow precedence and each case is considered as unique although the Landlord and Tenant Board does have certain guidelines available online. When it comes to trials at the Landlord and Tenant Board, I would recommend landlords hire a paralegal since most tenants now go to trial with a free legal aid clinic lawyer and they are quite good. Lots of defence tactics can be used including human-rights defences.

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Another area where it may be advantageous to hire a paralegal would be for small claims court matters. When I first started as a paralegal the maximum claim at small claims court was $20,000, but now it has been raised to $35,000. The rules are much simpler than at a higher court where you would need to hire a lawyer. You can go to small claims court on your own but hiring a seasoned paralegal is advised.

There are a lot of things that have to be considered before making a claim. One of the first ones is whether you have a legitimate claim. Another one is if you win does the other side actually have the means to pay. Many claims are won, but fewer are successful in collecting. You also have to make the claim within the two years of the discovery of the claim otherwise it would not be accepted by the court.

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This is reflected in the Statute of Limitations Act. You would need to write a claim where you would have to explain what the claim entails and you have to serve this claim on the defendant. The defendant then would have to write a defence which they then serves on you.

These various documents also have to be given to the court. Eventually, both parties go to a settlement conference where you can give a deputy judge your side of the story and the defendant will do the same. The deputy judge then gives his/her take on the case and also his/her recommendations.

If the matter is not settled then it would eventually go to the trial stage. The deputy judge will render their decision at the end of the trial which if you win then you start collection proceedings through the court system if the defendant does not pay you.

If you are not comfortable with doing all this and much more then I would hire a paralegal. In some cases, paralegals take on cases without money up front except for the court costs. If you win then they will ask for a percentage of the winnings but in most cases, you would have to pay the paralegal’s fee.

If you need to obtain legal advice then consider approaching a local paralegal if the matter is within his or her scope of practice. I have seen many of the local ones in action and they are quite good at what they do.

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