The Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals is advocating for regulation of paralegals and is already working to develop quality education programs.
OPINION | The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
In response to the growing access to justice issue in Alberta, legal stakeholders are trying to figure out what they can do to ease the mounting pressure on our court system. One of the biggest issues Albertans face when dealing with a legal matter is whether they can afford to retain a lawyer. The reality is that most Albertans cannot afford a lawyer, so they turn to another possible solution – paralegals.
Paralegals are members of the legal team that have additional education and training and perform substantive legal tasks. They typically have a billable rate, and, in most cases, work under the supervision of a lawyer.
Paralegals can perform a variety of substantive legal tasks, which include drafting pleadings, legal research, drafting memos and submissions, preparation of trial materials, and meeting with clients. Paralegals can also appear as agents in Provincial Court but cannot file documents on behalf of parties.
However, Alberta does not regulate paralegals. This presents two key issues:
- Anyone can say they are a paralegal whether they have the proper education and training or not.
- Independent practicing paralegals are providing legal services they are not authorized to provide, sometimes with incredibly negative results for their clients.
Simply stated, the lack of regulatory oversight is harming Albertans and our justice system.
Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals (AAPP)
The AAPP was originally formed in 1981 to provide recognition for legal assistants who were looking to be recognized for the independent work they performed. At that time, senior level legal assistants, with their vast knowledge and experience, filled a vital role of performing legal services as paralegals. This continues to ring true today, however, the term ‘paralegal’ is now far more common than it was then.
Today our Association is comprised of students, legal support professionals, paralegals who work under the direct supervision of a lawyer or member of the judiciary, and paralegals who are independently practicing. The Association also welcomes other legal stakeholders as Affiliate members, and retirees to remain active as Alumni members.
All paralegal members must meet specific criteria to be granted a paralegal membership, including graduation from a recognized paralegal studies program and proof of employment in a paralegal capacity. The same requirements apply to applicants for independent paralegal membership, though we also require proof of valid practice insurance as well as a proposed scope of practice.
The need for qualified paralegal services is growing in Alberta. This is evidenced by the growing number of people who are retaining the services of paralegals (qualified or not). However, in far too many instances, vulnerable individuals looking for legal assistance are being taken advantage of. The AAPP routinely receives complaints and concerns from members of the public about sub-par services. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer any resolution to individuals experiencing fraud and harm.
What will Regulation Achieve?
The AAPP is actively lobbying the government to regulate paralegals in Alberta. We intend for the profession to be recognized for the skills and knowledge it brings with it and to ensure individuals are practicing within set boundaries in an ethical, professional, and exemplary manner.
Through regulation, the AAPP will ensure all practicing paralegals have the required education, skills, and insurance. The AAPP will also have enforcement authority to hold paralegals accountable. In short, regulation protects the public and preserves the reputation of the profession.
The AAPP has been working closely with several post-secondary institutions on the development of paralegal studies programs, including the Paralegal Post-Diploma Certificate program at Red Deer Polytechnic (RDP). RDP’s program boasts a flexible delivery method which allows students to remain working while completing the program. In addition to acquiring in-depth knowledge in several areas of law, students will gain hands-on experience which will prepare them to successfully perform advanced legal tasks. For more information on this program, visit RDP’s website.
Other jurisdictions regulate paralegals. For example, Ontario has regulated paralegals since 2007 with remarkable success. They can practice in several areas of law and play an important role in the administration of justice in Ontario. This is a fantastic example of how Alberta can successfully address the access to justice issue and protect both the public and the reputation of the paralegal profession.
The Honourable Justice Beverley McLachlin said it best: “There is no justice without access to justice.” It is my firm belief that paralegals can and will play an integral role in helping address Alberta’s access to justice issue.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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