Paralegals in family law

Learn about the decades-long process of allowing paralegals in family law, specifically in Ontario, and the updates on this proposal

Paralegals in family law
Paralegals in family law are beginning to make progress in Ontario

Updated 25 Apr 2024

When a person is caught in a legal battle under our family law, having the best legal representation would at least alleviate their worries when facing the court. While lawyers are the first go-to, paralegals are now poised to have more roles in family law disputes, despite resistance from the bar.

Here, we’ll reflect on how paralegals in family law came about, and the two sides that support and oppose such proposal. We’ll also discuss the updates to this proposal.

Are paralegals in family law allowed in Ontario?

Ontario is the only province whose law society – the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) – regulates not only lawyers, but also other legal professionals such as paralegals.

While paralegals in Ontario have historically been providing many services in other areas of law, paralegals in family law have only been allowed just recently. After years of contemplation, the LSO approved the Family Legal Services Provider (FLSP) licence during its Convocation on 1 December 2022.

With the FLSP licence, paralegals in family law can now provide limited services on family law matters, subject to special training and licensing process of the LSO. It will still take some time before the paralegals can get their FLSP licences, since programs for its licensing process are yet to roll out.

Fanshawe College was chosen as the institution for developing and implementing the FLSP training program.

Here’s Durham College on their Paralegal program – although not yet offering family law – to look at the areas that paralegals are allowed to do in Ontario:

If you’re wondering what’s the difference between a lawyer and a paralegal, check out our article on whether you should hire a lawyer or a paralegal.

How did the FLSP Licence come into being?

Whether paralegals can be allowed to practise family law has been a subject of much debate. It all started when the Family Legal Services Review was released by former Ontario Court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo.

Results of the Family Legal Services Review

In March 2017, Justice Bonkalo’s final report put forward 21 recommendations after consulting with groups and individuals engaged in family law.

One of its highlighted recommendations was to allow paralegals in family law without the supervision of lawyers. Specifically, allowing them to provide certain types of family legal services, such as:

  • custody
  • simple child support cases
  • restraining orders
  • simple divorces without property

She wrote that a program of lawyer supervision would have no impact on the access to justice crisis in family law. However, “only licensed and independent paralegals can offer meaningful competition to lawyers,” she added.

Despite initially favouring a blanket ban on courtroom appearances by paralegals in family law matters, Bonkalo changed her mind during the consultation process.

She also noted that the demand for help among unrepresented family law litigants peak when they are called to appear in court. “As I continued to explore the issues and hear from different communities, it became clear to me that precluding paralegals from appearing in court would be a disservice to clients.”

Proposal to allow paralegals in family law

The proposal to expand Ontario paralegals' work in family law even started before Bonkalo’s Review. However, it started to break ground after its release.

Marshall Yarmus said that the LSO let down the public when it took on the responsibility of regulating paralegals, only to ban them from practising family law.

Yarmus is the former vice president of the Paralegal Society of Ontario, who also started public campaigns urging the LSO to complete the job it started in 2007. He currently runs Civil Litigations Paralegal Services in Toronto.

In 2010 and 2013, Yarmus transformed the LSO’s annual general meeting into essential viewing events for the profession. He was part of a team tabling motions to expand the scope of paralegal practice to include family law.

However, both motions were ultimately withdrawn at short notice in exchange for assurances of further study.

It wasn’t until December 2017 that Yarmus felt his efforts were finally vindicated, which was when benchers of the LSO committed to creating a special licence for paralegals.

In addition, LSO’s governing body endorsed a plan to study what other services should come under a further expanded licence. This includes the possibility of courtroom advocacy by paralegals.

“One of the reasons I started this campaign was because I kept getting calls from litigants looking for services at a lower price. I’m excited that we’re finally going to get access to justice for people with family law problems who can’t afford a lawyer.”

He also supports the move to mandate extra requirements before paralegals can begin practising in the area. “Education is very important. We don’t want anyone who’s unqualified to be doing it.”

The ayes: paralegals as accessible solutions in family law

Those who support paralegals in family law argue based on the reality of the province’s justice system, and the people’s need for representation before the courts.

Julie Macfarlane, a law professor at the University of Windsor and founder of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, says Ontarians are lining up to use paralegals in family law.

She also said that she’s frustrated both by the glacial pace of developments and the arguments of family lawyers, which she called “elitist.”

“There has been a lot of bad talk about paralegals, which I think is unfair. It seems disingenuous to suggest that nobody but lawyers can do this work,” Macfarlane said.

Still, she’s puzzled by the intensity of the bench’s opposition to Bonkalo’s recommendations. “I would have thought that it would be better for [litigants] to have someone representing a party than nobody,” she says.

“The underlying problem is the culture that says lawyers have to have their hands around everything. There’s a tremendous resistance to loosening the grip.”

Welcoming experiences of paralegals in other provinces

Even in jurisdictions that have embraced family law paralegals more openly, there is evidence of lawyers and law societies inhibiting their progress, Macfarlane said.

For example, the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) allows designated paralegals in family law services, but under the supervision of a lawyer. However, LSBC was forced to abandon a 2013 pilot project allowing paralegals into the courtroom over a two-year period.

This was after only three lawyers took advantage of the rule by sending paralegals under their supervision before a judge. As such, there is insufficient data to assess whether the pilot project was successful or not.

Currently, courts in BC do not permit designated paralegals to appear in court, although the BC Code allows such appearances when permitted by the court. Appearances by designated paralegals are up to the courts’ discretion.

Michèle Ross, a designated paralegal at Virgin Law Group in Vancouver, was one of the few paralegals to make it into court as part of the pilot project. She said that the project was a missed opportunity. “Some lawyers would benefit from some education about what we can do and how we can help clients save money.”

Family lawyers supporting the initiative

Macfarlane says there are Ontario family lawyers who support a bigger role for paralegals. However, she is worried that they will feel forced into silence because of the overwhelming consensus against them.

In Vancouver, Leisha Murphy, a partner at Connect Family Law, feels no such pressure. She said that her firm’s designated paralegals are well equipped to deal with many aspects of clients’ cases.

She also said that she would love to see the law society offering them more independence in practice. “I prefer to go to the higher-level aspects, like the strategic direction of the file,” she said.

“We need to loosen the reins. With so many people unrepresented, it’s inevitable in the long run anyway, and we as lawyers need to adjust to that reality.”

The nays: dissent on allowing paralegals in family law

Many lawyers in the family law bar argued that anything short of a law degree is not enough preparation for the complexities of family law.

Fay McFarlane, an Orillia-based lawyer, said that the law society is making a mistake by giving paralegals an entryway to family law. “It may be disastrous. Even us, as family law practitioners, have issues sometimes dealing with clients and their emotions,” she said. “I don’t think paralegals can handle it.”

She also added that “if they had the training that lawyers have, maybe they could, but that’s why we’re lawyers.”

Complexities of family law

Another contention is voiced out by David Harris-Lowe, former president of the Simcoe County Law Association and partner at Barriston LLP in Barrie. “Family law is complicated enough, but I don’t know how you can solve the problems associated with that by lowering the standards for people to be able to practise.”

When the FLSP was still a proposal, he didn’t think it would affect him because his family law clients were unlikely to consider hiring paralegals even if they had the option. “I recognize that there is an element of self-interest, at least to some lawyers,” he said.

“But when I hear that judges are saying this is a problem, that’s more concerning to me, because they don’t have that self-interest. Their interest is in having cases resolved fairly and expeditiously in the court system.”

Critiquing Justice Bonkalo’s Review

Former Justice Bonkalo’s Review is not without its critics. One of them is Justice George Czutrin, a former senior judge of the Superior Court’s family branch. In his submission to the LSO, he said that it was “unfortunate” that Bonkalo’s report gave so little weight to the concerns “experienced [by] family justice participants.”

He added that allowing paralegals to provide family law advice was not the answer to challenges in the system. “In fact, it is much more likely to cause its own set of problems without adding real value,” Czutrin wrote.

A ‘Band-Aid’ solution

Any attempt to hive off parts of family law as acceptable for paralegals to practise may fail because of the dynamic nature of disputes, said Kavita Bhagat, a family lawyer in Brampton.

“Paralegals are attractive to the attorney general because it’s a very easy solution to propose,” she said. “But it’s also a Band-Aid solution that ignores the real problems of family law.” In any case, she said, Bonkalo’s report put too little emphasis on alternative methods of dispute resolution.

What are the updates on the FLSP Licence?

On October 2023, the LSO announced that Fanshawe College has been chosen to collaborate with the regulator in developing the FLSP training program. The College will also deliver the program but is expected to be launched only in January 2025. The training program will be available both in English and French.

The prerequisite to enroll in the FLSP training program will be a paralegal (P1) licence, which is also offered by Fanshawe College, among others.

This means that only licensed paralegals can be licensed (again) to practice family law in Ontario. Interested enrollees to this training program will have to wait until it’s completed and fully offered by the LSO and Fanshawe College.

FLSP as a work in progress

Speaking as the Chairman of its Access to Justice Committee of the LSO at that time, Howard Goldblatt elaborated on the work to permit paralegals in family law.

He earlier said that they won’t be tied down to any deadline for implementing the new paralegal licence or reporting back on its possible future expansion. The process will give paralegal critics another chance to make their case. “We want to ensure that those who have views and voices are heard,” he said.

“Ultimately, the law society’s job is to regulate in the public interest, and that is what will prevail, as opposed to any stakeholders on either side of the debate.”

What are the other areas of law that paralegals can work in?

While allowing paralegals in family law is still under way, there are other areas of law that they can work in. This will depend on each province’s law society and their court rules.

In Ontario, paralegals can help in other areas, such as:

  • cases before the small claims court
  • specific criminal offences (e.g. assault, causing a disturbance, theft under $5,000)
  • cases before tribunals, such as before the:
    • Landlord and Tenant Board
    • Workplace Safety and Insurance Board
    • Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
    • Social Benefits Tribunal
  • traffic violations under provincial laws
  • violations of municipal by-laws
  • services related to notary publics

Looking for family lawyers, aside from paralegals in family law? Check out this list of the best family lawyers in Canada as ranked by Lexpert.

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