Paralegals are traditionally seen as the unskilled version of a solicitor or barrister – doing much of the background paperwork but not representing a client by themselves or undertaking court work. But this misconception does disservice to the valuable work paralegals undertake, and at a time when cuts to legal aid mean many people can no longer afford expensive legal fees, paralegals should start taking on more case work.
In a similar way to solicitors and barristers, paralegals are regulated by two professional bodies, the Institute of Paralegals (IoP) and the National Association of Licenced Paralegals, which handle complaints and set standards of conduct and ethics. The IoP estimates that there are 60,000 paralegals working in solicitor firms, equating to 44% of all those employed in these firms. Paralegals can also be self-employed, work for government, the not-for-profit sector, in industry or even be part of a paralegal law firm. Such is the growth in the number of paralegals that the IoP estimates there may be more paralegals than solicitors working in solicitor firms within the next ten years.
Much of this growth is linked to changes introduced in 2013 to the availability of legal aid, meaning that in areas such as family law and immigration law there is now extremely limited legal aid support. Solicitor fees can often prove too costly, which has led to an increasing numbers of litigants looking for alternatives. Some represent themselves in court, while others use the services of non-qualified people, called McKenzie friends.
This has had an impact on the courts, with cases often taking longer and people needing additional support. As a result, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation in late 2017 on the effect of the legal aid cuts.
Allow paralegals to do more
Meanwhile, since many paralegals specialise in a few practice areas such as family law, conveyancing or inheritance, their costs can be lower than other legal practitioners. Paralegals can already assist those unable to afford solicitors (and possibly a barrister too) and can receive support from the state, such as legal aid, to fight a case.
In late 2017, the Professional Paralegal Register and the Institute of Paralegals ran a consultation on whether paralegals should be able to argue cases in court. Although paralegals have not been banned from doing so, they have not explicitly been granted the rights of audience in court. The potential positive impact of giving them such rights, particularly for access to justice, is undeniable. I strongly believe that any future changes to legal aid policy should favour paralegals undertaking a larger amount of the case load.
If paralegals are to take on more responsibility within the English legal system, they will need a different type of training – and I think universities should be more involved. Some universities have already begun to do this: for example, seven universities already run law programmes that enable students to graduate with a diploma from the National Association of Licensed Paralegals.
Ongoing changes to the way legal professionals are trained offer a good opportunity to embed paralegal training into undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees. In November 2017, the Solicitors Regulation Authority finalised examination regulations for the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which must be taken by all solicitors. The first new exams will start in 2020. As a result, universities are redesigning their courses by September 2018 to ensure their law programmes comply with these proposed changes. This provides an opportunity to embed key areas of paralegal practice at all levels of an undergraduate law degree.
The revalidation could also cause a rethink in the types of assessment that undergraduate students undertake on a law degree. Scenario-based learning and assessments could be further developed to replicate what graduates will encounter as either paralegals or solicitors. The current preference for written examinations on abstract legal theory, and sometimes supplemented with coursework, could be modified to include other types of assessment to fully demonstrate the competencies graduates must have in practice. In particular, this could include developing and assessing verbal skills in a courtroom setting. Such advocacy skills in a paralegal could prove invaluable for clients who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
There are calls for paralegals to get their own professional qualification on top of a law degree, but this will depend on how universities and law schools adapt now to the opportunities to adapt their courses.