Are paralegals the answer to Legal Aid woes? - The Orca

Are paralegals the answer to Legal Aid woes?

Geoff Costeloe

One potential solution to B.C.’s lingering access to justice issues

Access to justice in Canada continues to be massively overlooked issue in politics.

The Law Society of BC (LSBC) estimates that 85% of those needing legal assistance fail to get advice from a lawyer. Further, the BC Legal Services Society estimates that of the approximately 28,000 clients who were referred to a lawyer, 46% had less than a high school education, and 30% were aboriginal.

When it comes to having a major impact on marginalized communities, Legal Aid is woefully underappreciated, as are the many lawyers who work with them, often for significantly less than they would make in private practice.

Legal aid resources often focus on criminal matters, on the basis that the accused should have adequate representation before their freedoms are significantly restricted (through prison or conditional sentences). This priority ignores people facing a serious family or commercial dispute.

Such issues can derail an individual’s personal and financial health. Having your children, family, or business taken away from you can, in many cases, feel as severe as time in prison. Without adequate legal assistance, these citizens are left to fend for themselves against an intimidating and often confusing legal system.

Aside from throwing more money at the problem, which is expensive and unsustainable, there are a number of other options for improving access to legal assistance. One has been to allow paralegals to handle certain matters, including some court appearances on behalf of clients in respect of family law matters.

Such a move would improve access to basic family legal services and drive down costs for these services across the province. The LSBC actually endorsed some of these changes in a 2014 report. Unfortunately, in December 2018, the LSBC requested more time to examine the issue and reasonable restrictions to place on paralegals acting in these positions.

There are certainly issues that need to be examined. Complex files and certain matters fraught with pitfalls (such as separation agreements) should not be delegated to non-lawyers. At the same time, lawyers in the province need to be aware that change is coming, and more importantly must come, to ensure that vulnerable populations have adequate access to legal services.

Any lawyer who criticizes the NDP’s sluggish and deferring approach to ride sharing while simultaneously protesting changes to the Legal Professions Act needs is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Just like taxi drivers, lawyers hold a monopoly on access to a service needed by many British Columbians. In that example there are valid concerns regarding insurance, safety and licensing. It is woefully unreasonable to believe that these concerns are not addressable through thoughtful dialogue and a determination to get things done.

The situation is no different for lawyers.

On the issue of access to justice, there is no one path forward, and there will be bumps along the way. But the Law Society of BC and the provincial government have an obligation to come together and draft real proposals as quickly as possible.

Every day that goes by, more people fall through the cracks.

Lawyers cannot pay lip service to access to justice without opening their time, their wallets, or their fiefdom.


Geoff Costeloe is a lawyer and entrepreneur located in Vancouver. The above article is not be taken as legal advice. You can engage with him (civilly) on Twitter @gcosteloe.