Should paralegals be given the right to take on more legal aid case work?

Although the role of a paralegal varies widely, they are generally responsible for assisting a solicitor or barrister to run their cases, without actually representing clients themselves or undertaking court work. Regulated by two professional bodies, the Institute of Paralegals and the National Association of Licensed Paralegals, there are estimated to be around 60,000 paralegals working in solicitor firms, with many more working for government, non-profit organisations, in industry or self-employed. Paralegals do not currently need to have any qualifications whatsoever, although most will have a degree and will be working towards or have passed the GDL, LPC or BPTC.

Changes to the availability of legal aid introduced in 2013 have resulted in extremely limited support for areas like family and immigration law. This has left an increasing number of litigants unable to secure legal aid and searching for alternatives to costly solicitors. Some industry leaders have suggested that paralegals should fill this gap, by taking on advocacy in legal aid cases. The IoP and the Professional Paralegal Register are currently running a consultation on this issue.

Many paralegals are already as academically qualified as a trainee solicitor or barrister and have had training in advocacy. For those aiming to go on to become barristers, gaining direct experience of advocacy is extremely valuable.

However, the role of a paralegal does vary hugely, with some only having responsibility for secretarial or admin duties. In order for them to take on new responsibilities, changes must be made to their training. Some universities are already starting to do this, with seven currently running law programmes that enable students to graduate with a diploma from the National Association of Licensed Paralegals. There could also be opportunities to embed paralegal training in undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees. The next step would then be for paralegals to get their own professional qualification, which would help them become a real alternative for clients who can’t afford a lawyer.

Adam Doyle, head of the law and criminology department at the University of East London, has said “any future changes to legal aid policy should favour paralegals undertaking a larger amount of the caseload” and that the “potential positive impact” of giving paralegals rights of audience in the lower courts, “particularly for access to justice, is undeniable”.

However, not everyone is convinced this is a good idea. Giving unqualified paralegals responsibility for advocacy in legal aid work because they are cheaper does suggest that this area is easier or not as important as other areas of the law. While some paralegals would undoubtedly be excellent advocates, others could well be out of their depth in such a situation.

While introducing new training and qualifications would certainly help to ensure standards of advocacy are met, surely this would also encourage paralegals to go on to become a solicitor or barrister. Paralegals are often paid very little and tend to be using the position as a stepping stone rather than something they see themselves continuing long term. And if they are not intending to make a career move, expecting paralegals to take on considerably more responsibilities without increasing their salaries will be unsustainable, meaning fees will have to increase and defeating the object of the proposals.

We’ll have to wait for the results of the consultation to see what paralegals themselves think, but with cuts to legal aid discouraging the next generation of lawyers from working in social welfare, it may be that we have no choice.