Dispute over paralegals sitting past bar before court today

An interesting case on paralegals’ right to sit past the bar heads to court today.

Marian Lippa, a director of the Paralegal Society of Ontario, will be making her case in her certiorari application before the Ontario Superior Court. She’s challenging a Newmarket, Ont., justice of the peace’s order banning paralegals from sitting past the bar, a decision she says “has diminished the view of paralegals as a profession before the courts.”

According to Lippa’s affidavit in the case, the events in question date back to June 10, 2010, when she was in court acting as agent for counsel Nicholas Charitsis and Rudy Covre. At the time, she said, there were a number of empty chairs past the bar. But when the Crown called her matter, justice of the peace Grainne Forrest allegedly chastised her for sitting past the bar and told her that from then on, she was to “sit in the body of the court and that counsel had precedence over paralegals.”

There are two primary issues at stake in the case. First is the question of whether paralegals can sit past the bar. Second is the issue of whether they must wait for lawyers to address their matters first before they can speak to the court.

For her part, Lippa argues Forrest’s actions have had a significant impact on her 14-year paralegal practice. “As trained and now regulated professionals, the effect of the order is to bring our work and services as paralegals into disrepute,” she stated in her affidavit.

“Although it may be personally insulting to paralegals to be treated this way, especially those who have been appearing before the courts for years, it is the public effect of the order that is more significant. Members of the public who are before the courts may feel that somehow their interests are not being protected as well as or with the same diligence as counsel when they appear with a paralegal.”

Lippa further noted that the issue has harmed her practice financially, especially given the difficulty of having to wait for lawyers to address their matters in court before she can go ahead with hers.

“As a result, Lippa Legal Services is no longer capable of handling the volume of criminal court appearances it did prior to June 2010,” she wrote. “This has had a significant impact on my business as a paralegal. Because appearances in the Ontario Court of Justice remand courtrooms now take up so much time, there is simply fewer matters that myself and the two other licensed paralegals can attend to in a day.”

At issue in the case is the Barristers Act that gives precedence in court to lawyers according to their seniority. The Paralegal Society of Ontario has also weighed in on a practice that it calls “archaic and discriminatory.”

The schism between lawyers and paralegals has been playing out for years, of course. The latest issue comes as the Law Society of Upper Canada takes yet another step at more fully integrating paralegals since it began regulating them in 2007. In fact, just last week it announced it was ending the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program in its current form in order to launch a new service for members in crisis. The change extends the service to paralegals.

So with the law society taking steps over time to more fully integrate and include paralegals, should the courts and the government, through its lawmaking powers, follow suit?

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