By Ian Burns for The Lawyer's Daily
The B.C. legislature is considering legislation to allow the provincial law society to give more powers to paralegals, but the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) is asking the government to delay the move, saying it requires more study and may have significant consequences on the practice of family law in the province.
Attorney General David Eby introduced Bill 57, the Attorney General Statutes Amendment Act, Nov. 19. The bill makes changes to the Legal Professions Act to expand the types of professionals able to provide legal services to the public to include licensed paralegals, who will be permitted to provide a limited scope of service. This was done in response to a request from the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC), which is looking at creating a new type of alternative legal service provider focusing on family law.
But in a letter to Eby, the CBABC is saying the bill needs to be held off on until further study is done.
“Our members are committed to the access to justice goals of Bill 57, specifically the issues of financial and geographical access to legal advice,” the letter said. “However, we are concerned about the haste in which Bill 57 has been introduced without a proper opportunity for meaningful consultation with the experienced and committed family law practitioners who work daily with clients. We are concerned that if Bill 57 is enacted without proper consultation there may be unintended consequences and that the goals of providing access to justice may not be met.”
The CBABC added the LSBC is conducting consultations on its proposals for family law practitioners until Dec. 31. In addition, the law society’s Oct. 29 annual general meeting (AGM) was scheduled to consider a resolution directing benchers to withdraw their proposals, but the meeting was plagued with technical issues and postponed until Dec. 4.
Family lawyer Leena Yousefi of YLaw Group said a number of lawyers in the province have voiced their disagreement with the law society’s moves, and noted Bill 57 has language which says the AGM resolution would not be binding on benchers.
“It seems [the law society] wants the legislation to go through so the members of the bar have no power or say on what they are going to do,” she said. “So that’s why we wrote the government to stop until we have that meeting. But it seems there’s a big momentum to have it passed [before Dec. 4].”
LSBC communications officer David Jordan said the law society welcomes the bill’s legislative amendments, which were requested four years ago, “but we had no hand in the timing of its introduction.”
“Passing enabling legislation is just one step, and the benchers will still need to approve a new category of licensed paralegal, determine what they will be authorized to do and establish education and training requirements,” he said. “The benchers will continue to engage the profession and gather input as we take the time necessary to get this right.”
Jordan said the full scope of services any potential alternative legal service provider would be able to provide has yet to be determined.
“But the law society is currently proposing a model that would allow a licensed paralegal to advise a client about available legal options, how agreements or court orders may affect their rights and obligations, and in limited circumstances, to appear in court to assist a client representing themselves,” he said.
Although a request for a response to the CBABC’s letter was not received by publication time, Eby’s office said in an earlier statement to The Lawyer’s Daily “the intention of expanding who may practise in some areas of the law is to increase access to, and choice in, legal services, particularly in areas that may be unmet or underserved.”
“Licensed paralegals will be regulated by the Law Society of British Columbia,” Eby’s office said. “The law society will have the authority to establish the scope of legal services provided by licensed paralegals and they are currently consulting on a proposed scope of practice area, which is in the area of family law.”
In addition to the paralegal changes, Bill 57 also amends the provincial Class Proceedings Act to change the way that money from awards is handled when it cannot be distributed to class members. The legislation will require at least 50 per cent of undistributed awards and settlement funds to be disbursed to the Law Foundation of British Columbia. The funds will be used by the foundation to facilitate access to justice. The courts will have discretion over how to disperse the remaining funds.