LAW

Competition in the courts

NORA UNDERWOOD April 13 1987
LAW

Competition in the courts

NORA UNDERWOOD April 13 1987

Competition in the courts

LAW

Const. Brian Lawrie was a pioneer when he resigned from the Metropolitan Toronto Police force 3½ years ago to become a paralegal— an adviser who, although not a lawyer, assists clients in such minor legal matters as traffic violations. Now, Lawrie is one of about 400 Ontario paralegals who say that their clients benefit from their experience and their relatively low fees. But critics charge that the lack of guidelines governing the burgeoning paralegal industry has left the

field wide open to incompetent amateurs and even criminals who organize illegal confidence schemes.

Lawrie, 37, who specializes in representing people accused of traffic offences, said that the idea of starting a paralegal company occurred to him after looking on as confused citizens defended themselves unsuccessfully in traffic court. In December, 1983, he started a company called Provincial Offences Information and Traffic Ticket Service Ltd. (POINTTS). He now has 14 offices in Ontario—all staffed by former policemen. Fees work out, in many cases, to between one-half and one-fifth of what clients would pay a lawyer for the same service.

For Lawrie, staying in business has occasionally been difficult. In May, 1985, the Law Society of Upper Canada charged him with “unlawfully acting as a barrister or solicitor”—a private prosecution that was not resolved until

last month. On March 13 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Lawrie was not breaking the law by representing clients in traffic cases. But, declared Mr. Justice Gordon Blair, “there must be concern about the absence of any control over the education, qualification, competence and probity of all agents.” According to Shaun Devlin, a Law Society staff lawyer, almost anyone can go into the field. Said Devlin: “It’s attracting people who have criminal records, bad credit histories and

records of other sorts of illegal activities.” But Lawrie says that the Law Society has not worked hard enough to bring in regulations: “If they leave the door open long enough, we’re going to get criminals in the job.”

The Ontario Supreme Court ruling confirmed that paralegals can legally represent clients in certain cases, including traffic charges, landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims court cases. But lawyers claim that some paralegals are offering advice on wills and estates, divorce, and real estate, services for which they are not allowed to charge a fee. As well, said Devlin, clients have complained that paralegals have taken their

money and not done the job; that refugees have been counselled to lie to immigration officials; and that wills have been drawn up incorrectly. And some paralegals offer franchise opportunities, ranging upward in price from $12,000, with training programs sometimes as brief as two days.

Many lawyers say that an already difficult problem could become worse if laws are not enacted quickly. “The public doesn’t realize the consequences if a will or a separation agreement isn’t properly drawn up,” said Devlin. Last spring Conservative member Terry O’Connor introduced a bill to the Ontario legislature that would regulate the activities of paralegals and establish educational standards and a code of ethics. The proposal, which passed its second reading last June, is expected to go into effect by fall.

NORA UNDERWOOD