In the late 1980s the term ‘Paralegal’ had only been referred to in the context of U.S television shows about Courts and Attorneys. It had never been a term that we used in the UK.
Arguably, The Paralegal Association (now referred to as the National Association of Licenced Paralegals) was the first British organisation to mention paralegals, not only in its title, but also to define what a paralegal is. That was in 1987. The definition was and still is: ‘an individual who is trained and educated to perform legal tasks and offer legal advice who is not a qualified solicitor, barrister or legal executive (now chartered legal executive).’
However, since then, paralegals have taken on a different meaning in the eyes of solicitors who believe that paralegals are no more than law graduates who cannot find a training contract and offer their services as ‘paralegals’ in the hope that they will eventually be offered the elusive training contract and qualify as solicitors. In other words, all paralegals are just would-be solicitors.
This is just not true. Yes, we can say there are some graduates who are in this situation but that is only half the story. The reason for the abundance law graduates entering the sector is mainly because there are far more education institutions running the professional examinations (LPC for solicitors, BPTC for barristers) than there were previously. Numbers have risen from 4 in 1982 to 42 in 2010. Hence there are not enough training contracts or pupillages to cater for everyone.
The other half of the story lies in the fact that there is nothing illegal about individuals offering legal advice and assistance to a consumer, provided they do not perform ‘reserved legal activities’, e.g. activities that are only reserved for solicitors. Furthermore, since legal aid was virtually eradicated for all but the most urgent cases, the vast majority of consumers cannot afford the fees of solicitors or barristers who may charge anything between £150 to £600 per hour for their services.
The Legal Services Act 2007 was introduced in order to encourage competition in the provision of legal services, to give access to justice for all and to preserve the Rule of Law. The irony is that since then, access to justice for consumers has been hampered not only by the withdrawal of legal aid but also by the confusion that followed the opening up of legal services.
It used to be the case, that consumers knew that if they had a legal problem they could go to a solicitor, and if their financial means allowed for it, they could gain funding to pursue or defend a case. Now, with such funding gone, and not being able to afford the legal fees, many consumers are going to court without representation, representing themselves as litigants in person (LIPs). This has caused immeasurable problems for the courts who are required to slow proceedings down, in order to provide appropriate advice to the LIP.
This is where paralegals come into the frame: they fill the gap left by the withdrawal of legal aid, and offer access to justice at a reasonable cost. Many professional paralegal practitioners work in a similar way to solicitors. In other words, they are qualified and have gained experience in a particular area of law, they have a Licence to Practise and have professional indemnity insurance. What makes them distinct from solicitors is that they have not gained the prescribed qualifications as dictated by the Solicitors regulation Authority.
Which brings us on to the question of regulation. Solicitors are statutorily regulated and paralegals are not. This means that only a solicitor who has qualified through the prescribed route can, expressly or impliedly state that they are a ‘solicitor’. Anyone who holds themselves out as being a ‘solicitor’ (it may only be by inference) is committing a criminal offence.
Paralegals are not regulated by statute, but instead they should be members a voluntary regulatory professional body (such as NALP) in order to be bound by the code of practice and ethics.
Does the lack of statutory regulation mean that paralegals are less competent to carry out legal work and give advice? Even though anyone can refer to themselves as a ‘paralegal’ a consumer needs to check on their credentials to ensure that they have the necessary training and professional membership to back them up.
In any event, the annual statistics coming from the Office of Legal Complaints (Legal Ombudsman) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority speak for themselves.
The Paralegal Profession is the fastest growing profession in the legal sector. Paralegals can do mostly everything that a solicitor can do, except for reserved legal activities (some of which are currently being eroded in practice), and will charge far less than a solicitor. Register to find a NALP regulated paralegal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its training arm, NALP Training, trading as National Paralegal College, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.
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