A paralegal is a individual who is not a lawyer, but who is licensed to undertake specific forms of legal work. For example, paralegals often assist lawyers. In addition, paralegals are licensed to perform certain types of legal work without the direction or supervision of a lawyer.
Paralegals operating in Ontario must be licensed by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Once licensed, a paralegal may practice in specific areas of law. According to Law Society By-Law 4, a paralegal can represent an individual:
- In Small Claims Court,
- In the Ontario Court of Justice in respect of a charge under the Provincial Offences Act (e.g., a speeding ticket or traffic ticket),
- On a summary conviction charge under the Criminal Code for which the maximum penalty does not exceed 6 months imprisonment, and
- Before administrative tribunals (e.g., Financial Services Commission of Ontario which deals with Pension and Insurance cases)
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However, the powers of a paralegal representing a person in one of the above-mentioned proceedings are limited. The paralegal cannot do all the things that a criminal defence lawyer operating in the same proceeding would be capable of doing. The scope of the paralegals powers allow the paralegal to:
- Give legal advice concerning legal interests, rights or responsibilities with respect to a proceeding or on the subject matter of a proceeding,
- Draft or assist with drafting of documents for use in the proceeding, and
- Negotiate on behalf of a person who is a party to a proceeding.
Though a paralegal can give advice or draft documents, they may do so only with respect to a specific proceeding. A paralegal cannot give general legal advice or draft general legal documents (such as a will or contract).
To become a licensed paralegal, an individual must have graduated from a legal services program approved by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities within the three years prior to the date that they apply to be licensed. The legal services program must have included a minimum of 18 courses on legal services with the permitted scope of the practice of a paralegal, a course of ethics and professional responsibility, and a internship/ field placement in a legal environment (such as a courthouse or law firm) for a minimum of 120 hours. Qualifying legal services programs are the “court and tribunal agent” programs offered at community colleges and the “paralegal” programs often offered at private career colleges. After June 2010, all applicants will be required to have graduated from an accredited legal services program. To date, the law society has accredited ten college paralegal programs. All applicants must write a licensing examination in order to become a licensed paralegal.
To become a paralegal, applicants must also satisfy a “good character requirement”. Generally, you can satisfy this requirement by providing the Law Society with a police clearance check or reference.
Paralegals tend to specialize in a legal niche whereas lawyers are given a more holistic training. As a result, lawyers tend to analyze facts and develop legal strategies, whereas paralegals are generally responsible for carrying out specific tasks required to put those strategies into action. The most important difference between a lawyer and a paralegal is that a lawyer can give legal advice. A paralegal, on the other hand, can give advice pertaining to the specific task at hand (“I suggest you fill out this form”) but not general advice (“if you do this, you will not be liable”).
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