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The Law Society is marking a major milestone this month with the 10th anniversary of paralegal regulation in Ontario. To celebrate a decade of progress, growth and achievement, the Gazette recently spoke with two paralegals who have been at the forefront of this evolution: Law Society Benchers Cathy Corsetti and Michelle Haigh, both members and former chairs of the Paralegal Standing Committee.
“I have to admit, when I first heard the Law Society was going to regulate paralegals, I was skeptical — what did that even mean? Were they planning to put us out of business?” recalls Corsetti, who is now also vice-chair of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee.
Her concerns proved to be short-lived. “Law Society regulation has turned the paralegal profession into a highly respected one, a profession that provides access to justice to the people of Ontario — a profession that I have worked in for over 40 years and one that I am so proud of,” she says.
Haigh agrees that regulation has had a very positive effect, providing stability, competence and public protection. “Regulation made sure that there are safety nets for the public and that paralegals are providing competent services,” she says.
She admits that the early days were not without challenges. In the beginning, no one knew exactly how many people were already practising throughout the province and a process had to be structured to allow for grandfathering of approximately 2,000 paralegals. As well, there was some initial pushback from lawyers.
A decade later, Haigh notes that enhancements to program accreditation and the licensing examination have helped to significantly improve professional competence. As well, the relationships between lawyers and paralegals have experienced a positive upswing. “Today, more and more law firms are hiring paralegals to complement their workforces — and that divide is definitely being narrowed.”
Corsetti agrees, noting that most of the new paralegals she now meets are employed at law firms. “I think many more lawyers see the benefits that paralegals provide to the people of Ontario and recognize them as a real asset, particularly those with experience in and a focus on specific areas within their scope of practice.”
Many other significant milestones have been marked over the past 10 years, thanks to the ongoing work and vision of the Paralegal Standing Committee.
These include the following:
- designation of paralegals as commissioners for taking affidavits
- introduction of welcome ceremonies for new paralegals
- introduction of a distinguished paralegal award
- extension of the Member Assistance Program (MAP) to include paralegals
- extension of the Law Society’s referral service to include paralegals
- an increase in the number of paralegal Benchers from two to five
- development of a new examination with more substantive law questions
- inclusion of paralegals in the Coach and Advisor Network (CAN)
- recognition of paralegals as officer of the courts in all courts in which they are authorized to provide legal services — as endorsed by Convocation and included in the province’s budget bill in March.
“These are things I am proud of,” says Corsetti.
She and Haigh are particularly pleased with the development of a special licence for paralegals and others with appropriate training, to offer some family law legal services.
Developed in partnership with the Ministry of the Attorney General and approved by Convocation in December, the action plan responds to the 21 recommendations outlined in the Family Legal Services Review, which considered whether a broader range of service providers could deliver certain family law legal matters.
“Not only is this an exciting development for the Law Society, it will also assist in an area that has high numbers of unrepresented people, and is a great access to justice initiative,” says Corsetti. “I am proud to be part of the development of this new licence. It makes for a great anniversary celebration.”
Advice to Students
Asked what advice they would provide the new paralegals entering the profession, Haigh suggests that students think beyond the traditional model of working as a sole practitioner focusing on traffic, small claims and landlord tenant matters.
“There are over 100 tribunals in which we are licensed to practise – we are not taking advantage of that as licensees and there are a lot of other gaps that we can fill. You don’t necessarily have to advocate — there are also many other support roles, such as research, that paralegals can fill, either in law firms, insurance companies, or other corporate settings.”
Corsetti advises paralegal students to begin “creating themselves” as paralegal professionals before they graduate from a program. She encourages them to attend courts and observe how they operate. She also encourages them to volunteer, mentor others, join the Ontario Paralegal Association and attend professional events, such as the May 1 celebration.
“Our profession has gained a lot of ground over the last 10 years,” says Haigh. “We are definitely more respected by government and by the legal profession as a whole and by the public. I still think we have a long way to go in terms of educating the public and letting them know what we can do to help them and I think that needs to be our goal for the next 10 years.”
Corsetti is looking forward to the next decade as well. “I am hopeful that, in the next 10 years, ‘paralegal’ becomes a household word, and that the public understands that a paralegal can assist in many areas of law, areas in which most people of Ontario have legal needs and require representation.”