For centuries in England, it’s true to say that consumers of legal services automatically consider a ‘lawyer’ to be either a solicitor or barrister. Not so anymore!
With the economic squeeze affecting all of us, it’s understandable that consumers cannot afford the fees of these conventional lawyers. As consumers we also are subject to the decision made in 2013 to withdraw legal aid for all but the most urgent of legal cases, leaving a gap in the provision of those legal services at the low end of the scale. This is where paralegal professionals enter the framework.
Paralegals are trained and educated in a similar way to solicitors. Some have law degrees and others have successfully completed nationally recognised paralegal qualifications. They can do mostly everything that a solicitor can do except the practice of some activities which remain the monopoly of solicitors. These activities are known as reserved practices and a paralegal practitioner cannot overstep the boundary and offer these services without being sanctioned.
There are six main reserved activities which are: the exercise of a right of audience; the conduct of litigation; reserved instrument activities; probate activities; notarial activities; and the administration of oaths. These are activities that paralegals cannot perform. However, they can assist you, in some cases, with the preparation in order to cut down the time and money spent on a solicitor.
Are paralegals any good?
Why wouldn’t they be? The Law is The Law and studying law as a paralegal is the same law that an undergraduate studies during their law degree. So, what’s the difference? Those that go on to qualify as a solicitor after graduation, need to qualify through the SRA prescribed route for qualification as a solicitor, which includes taking a course on practice and procedure and the requirement to gain qualifying experience. Whereas, to qualify as a professional paralegal, academic and procedural law qualifications need to be attained, together with a period of relevant legal experience or, via the experiential route, at least five years’ relevant legal experience in the area of law the paralegal wishes to practise.
The argument that solicitors are more qualified to practise law does not hold water. Solicitors do not have a monopoly on good practice. Just reading the number of resolved cases on the Legal Ombudsman site confirms that. Between 2019 and 2021 approximately 11,000 complaints were resolved. These figures do not take account of the number of complaints made against solicitors in the first place – just those that were resolved!
As at 31st July 2021, there were just over 153,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales according to The Law Society statistics. There are, however, an estimated 200,000 paralegals working in the UK. Some work in-house, some work in the private and charity sectors, but many do work within the legal sector and an increasing number work as practitioners offering legal services to consumers directly.
The main difference between a paralegal and a solicitor is the fact that the paralegal profession is not statutorily regulated. This means that anyone can refer to themselves as a ‘paralegal’ and it would not be an offence to do so. Whereas, to describe oneself or even imply that one is a solicitor when that is not true, could give rise to criminal proceedings.
What can a paralegal help with?
Paralegals can help with almost all legal issues, from assisting a private individual who is owed money to seeking help and advice through divorce proceedings. They can help landlords and tenants with disputes over unpaid rent, and small business that need an employment contract to be drafted or a commercial contract checked. Aside from the reserved activities mentioned above, a suitably qualified paralegal can help with the same legal issues as a solicitor.
How to choose the right paralegal
As a consumer, ensure the paralegal you are engaging is a member of a recognised membership body for paralegals. NALP (National Association of Licensed Paralegals) is the foremost professional paralegal body in the UK and has a steadfast reputation within the legal sector and beyond. The membership categories have strict eligibility criteria that have to be fulfilled before an individual is accepted as a member. In addition, any NALP member that wishes to gain a licence to practise must provide evidence of relevant legal experience in the area in which they wish to practise and must have PII (Professional Indemnity Insurance). Due diligence is undertaken on each applicant before a Licence is granted.
The National Paralegal Register is a great place to start if you are looking for a paralegal to help you. You can search by geography, specialisation, and qualification/experience level.
Is it cost effective to use the services of a paralegal?
It is a fact that solicitors charge fees that range from £250 per hour to £600 per hour depending on the seniority of the solicitor in question. Whereas a paralegal practitioner may only charge between £30-£80 per hour for their services depending on the nature of the case. This makes paralegals much more affordable, for the same service, than a solicitor.
So, with the current need for us all to rein in our spending as much as possible, choosing to use the services of a qualified paralegal is, in my opinion, a no brainer!