Shaping a new future for lawyers and legal assistants in B.C.

The Benchers will take a fresh look at expanding the role of legal assistants in B.C. and options for certification. A special Paralegals Task Force, headed by Bencher Jo Ann Carmichael, will undertake this review.

In an extensive report* to the Benchers at their March meeting, the Task Force traced the history and growth of independent paralegal activity, particularly in Ontario where independent paralegals are commonplace. Independent paralegals may in fact be formally recognized and brought under a new regulatory scheme, if the Ontario government adopts recommendations made by the Hon. Peter Cory last year.

B.C., unlike Ontario, does not currently appear to face significant pressure to expand or institutionalize the role of independent paralegals, though this situation could change, the Task Force noted.

After considering the history of the issue, including previous Law Society of B.C. studies on paralegals and notaries public, the Benchers gave clear direction to the Task Force that they do not wish to explore allowing independent paralegal practice in B.C.

The Benchers encouraged the Task Force to explore several options, which promote the cost-efficiencies of legal assistants while preserving the protections offered through law firm supervision. These options are:

  • Maintenance of the status quo, with the expansion of legal assistant functions: Express prohibition against independent paralegals practising law would continue. Chapter 12 of the Professional Conduct Handbook would be revised to allow legal assistants to provide expanded services under the supervision of a lawyer. It would be essential to consult effectively with members and legal assistants on the specifics of such an expansion.
  • Certified legal assistants, regulated through their supervising lawyer: Express prohibition against independent paralegals practising law would continue. This option would introduce a new system of certified legal assistants, employed and supervised by lawyers, with expanded rights, subject to a system of Law Society accreditation. Regulation would continue, as at present, through the Law Society's regulation of the supervising lawyer, rather than regulation of the legal assistant directly.
  • Certified legal assistants, individually regulated: Express prohibition against independent paralegals practising law would continue. This option would introduce a new system of certified legal assistants, employed and supervised by lawyers, with expanded rights, subject to a system of Law Society accreditation and regulation, including possibly one or more of their own code of professional conduct, insurance, special compensation fund and complaints and discipline mechanisms.

The Task Force will flesh out these options and report back to the Benchers later this year.

In the early 1990s the Benchers took several steps toward a certification program for legal assistants. The project ultimately did not proceed, in part because of the cost of the model under consideration and the projected difficulties in cost recovery.

There are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 legal assistants in B.C., based on a definition of "legal assistant" as a person who does work that would be done by a lawyer if a legal assistant is not available.

Last year the Benchers revised Chapter 12, Rule 8 of the Professional Conduct Handbook to allow lawyers to delegate to their legal assistants the negotiation of claims in tort when the amount involved does not justify the cost of lawyer's time and provided the lawyer reviews any proposed terms before the legal assistant offers or accepts a settlement. Chapter 12 "Supervison of Employees" previously allowed lawyers to delegate only the negotiation of liquidated claims.