In recent months, Canada’s paralegals were hit by new rules from the federal government. And Ontario’s paralegals have been hit by provincial budget cuts.
In June, federal Bill C-75, designed to streamline and modernize the criminal justice system, received Royal Assent. The federal government is shifting some caseload away from Superior Court by increasing the maximum penalty for all criminal cases heard in provincial court (summary offences) to two years less a day in jail. This could prevent paralegals from representing defendants in provincial court, because the Criminal Code allows them to act only in cases where the maximum penalty is six months imprisonment. (Paralegals can still attend court in place of the accused on all summary convictions, to seek an adjournment.)
Under the new bill, paralegals can appear on summary conviction proceedings – depending on their provincial or territorial government’s policy. The federal government says this “maintains jurisdictional flexibility for provinces and territories to establish their own criteria and reflect the regional diversity in the regulation of legal representation across Canada.” Many critics accuse the federal government of “downloading” these decisions to the provinces.
Most provinces only allow law students and paralegals to represent clients when they face sentences of up to six months. The federal government has given provinces and territories more power to establish their own criteria for who can appear as an agent.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is working with the Law Society of Ontarioon how to proceed, but has not provided a deadline or revealed any criteria yet. Another issue: the deadline is September 19, when the new federal law takes effect, but the Ontario legislature is not sitting until October. The Ontario Paralegal Associationbelieves their members will have to drop ongoing files if the provincial government won’t allow them to appear on criminal matters. The Association wants paralegals to represent defendants on all summary offences.
David Jordan of the Law Society of British Columbia says they support the Federation of Law Societies’ position on Bill-C-75, which states, “Canadians charged with summary conviction offences deserve appropriate and accessible legal representation, which in the view of the Federation includes paralegals, law students, and licensing candidates acting as agents.”
The Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals (“AAPP”) is currently in meetings with the Law Society of Alberta. While declining to discuss specifics, Heidi Semkowich, President of the AAPP, says it’s imperative for paralegals to become regulated, in the interests of their clients and for access to justice.
In April, the Ontario budget reduced Legal Aid funding. The provincial government’s goalis “streamlining the delivery of legal aid to promote long-term sustainability” and believes that the federal government should “fully fund law services before federal tribunals or the federal court”.The first cut of $133 million is more than one-quarter of the total budget (currently $456 million). By 2021-22, the budget cut will be $164 million.This includes a complete cut in provincial funds for immigration and refugee matters, about $45 million this year. Legal Aid will have only its federal allocation (about $13 million to $16 million) for refugee or immigration cases.
Legal Aid Ontario is an independent agency of the Ontario government, created in April 1999 as a corporation under the Legal Aid Services Act. Criminal and family matters represent most of the systems’ total costs. Eligibility is incomebased. While paralegals typically work for clients whose income is above the Legal Aid threshold, some paralegals and their clients will be affected.
The legal profession is very concerned about a lack of access to justice. Malcolm Mercer of the Law Society of Ontario said, “This major reduction in such a short period of time will cause increased court delays and threatens to seriously disrupt the administration of justice.”