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More on paralegals: Trading one problem for another | Gary Joseph

Thursday, November 12, 2020 @ 1:22 PM | By Gary Joseph

Gary Joseph %>
Gary Joseph
After years of struggling against the tide of reputational putdowns of the practice of family law, the profession and a large segment of the consuming public has come to realize that the practice of family law is one of the most complex practice areas of the law. In this context then, I consider some recent suggestions that family lawyers may become or have become unnecessary and unwanted participants in family law disputes. This draws me into, once again, one of my rants about independent paralegal practices of family law.

I know many believe it to be only a matter of access to justice. While this may be somewhat true, it is also an issue of protection of the public against unqualified individuals practising law. I thought that was one of the primary objectives of the LSO (no, not the beer store but the Law Society of Ontario. … I hate the new moniker, largely part of the cancel culture, I believe).

Family lawyers pummelled by criticism from the public and blame from everywhere, are too willing to concede ground on this issue. Yes, the cost of quality legal services is high, but the return is great and as I have written so many times before, family lawyers need to trumpet the value they bring to family law disputes. Not only do we not do that but more and more I am hearing family lawyers suggesting that ours is a soon to be extinct practice area. Others write of companies in the U.S. offering online family law services, the proliferation of non-lawyers practising family law in other jurisdictions and the fact of independent paralegal services permitted elsewhere. All of this may be true but not necessarily the desired outcome in Ontario.

It is inconceivable to me that someone without formal legal training, having only some abbreviated six- to 10-month crash course in family law, should be permitted to provide such services to the public without the direct supervision of a family lawyer. I supervise about 10 associates at our firm. All are bright graduates of recognized law schools, all have some family law experience working under supervision. Notwithstanding this, each associate must file with me monthly reports on all files they are working on. They receive direct feedback from me and my partners. They observe meetings, mediations, arbitrations, motions and trials. They have a ready group of experienced partners to provide ongoing and often instant advice and assistance. Yet with all this, it takes years for each associate to reach the level of competence to operate their own practice within our firm.

With this in mind, I suggest that the LSO will trade one problem for another should they license independent paralegal practices of family law. Perhaps more access to justice but likely many more consumer-protection-type complaints. I fear that the decision has been made and the request for input is but a salve to the family law bar. If so, I urge the LSO to (a) insist upon and impose a rigid standard of excellence in the training program, (b) provide for a mandatory period of work under the direct supervision of a family lawyer, and (c) demand adequate liability insurance for paralegals to deal with claims as they arise. Nothing less should be accepted. The family law bar needs to speak up!

Gary S. Joseph is the managing partner at MacDonald & Partners LLP, family law practitioners.

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