As the cost of the services of a talented Solicitor or Barrister skyrockets, and a reduction in legal aid continues, fewer consumers are finding that they can afford costly legal services. They are searching for an alternative.
Paralegals are emerging as that alternative, but the profession still remains an unknown quantity to all but the professional Paralegals themselves, particularly in the eyes of qualified lawyers, who believe Paralegals are simply “would-be Solicitors”.
Many individuals are qualifying as Paralegals independently. Without a shadow of a doubt, Paralegals will play a key role in the future of legal services – especially in assisting consumers with everyday matters at an affordable cost. They will sit alongside Solicitors and Barristers within the legal sector – filling a gap and need that is currently being underserved. Paralegals are already an important if not visible profession within the legal services industry. Solicitors and Barristers also have the opportunity to recognise what this addition brings them and the sector as a whole, and to embrace Paralegals as one of the ways consumers can have access to legal advice and support.
As part of this expectation, it is essential that Paralegals be robustly trained and qualified in order to build trust with consumers, and in the sector generally.
Organisations such as the Paralegal self-regulatory body, NALP, are offering Paralegal qualifications regulated by Ofqual. Ofqual is the government body that accredits nationally recognised qualifications such as GCSEs and “A” levels. If these qualifications are an acceptable part of the academic training and qualifications process, then why are the Paralegal qualifications offered through Ofqual not accepted in the same way?
Paralegals are taking up the slack left by the withdrawal of legal aid. They are working alongside Solicitors and Barristers in that they deal with the small, low-end claims and matters that Solicitors and Barristers are not prepared to deal with (nor would it be financially viable to do so). So what’s the problem?
The Paralegal profession has come a long way in thirty years. Admittedly, there is no statutory regulation as there is for Solicitors and Barristers, but that is not Paralegals’ choosing. The government has expressed its intention not to statutorily regulate Paralegals because it believes that (1) there is far too much regulation within the legal sector already and (2) there is no need to regulate Paralegals.
If this will remain the viewpoint of the government, then in order to ensure synergy with the other legal services providers, there needs to be an acceptance of the Paralegal profession’s role by the sector generally, and a recognition of NALP. As an awarding organisation through Ofqual, NALP plays an important part in ensuring that Paralegals are properly trained and qualified moving forward.
In the future, anyone wishing to embark on a career as a professional Paralegal should have some specifically recognisable qualifications under their belt, in the same way that Solicitors and Barristers have, as well as be part of a respected professional membership body, in the same way as Solicitors and Barristers are. This will give confidence to anyone utilising their services that they are properly vetted and trained. It also ensures that each Paralegal understands their role in the sector in relation to other legal services providers, as well as which services for consumers they can and cannot undertake.
The future of legal services must depend on synergy, trust and acknowledgement between the legal services providers – only then can there be clear and transparent information imparted to consumers.
Article contributed by Amanda Hamilton.