Paralegals are not statutorily regulated like solicitors and barristers are, so why do they need to be trained and qualified? Surely, anyone can describe themselves as a paralegal and there is nothing wrong with that?
The answer to these questions is that, in theory, they are correct assumptions, but in practice this is not so. Why? Because there have been huge changes within the legal services sector and the role of the paralegal has also changed along with these changes.
Traditionally, since the term entered our legal language, a few decades ago, a ‘paralegal’ has become synonymous with a ‘law graduate that cannot find a training contract’, and that they only work in firms with solicitors. However, because the sector has evolved since the Legal Services Act 2007, and with the subsequent changes in eligibility for legal aid, paralegals are now coming to the fore as the fastest growing profession in the sector, offering access to justice at a reasonable cost to consumers.
There are eight main objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007 and three of them are:
- Improving access to justice
- Protecting and promoting the interests of consumers of legal services and
- Promoting competition in the provision of legal services
The growth in the numbers of Licenced Paralegals offering services to consumers has fully reflected these three objectives.
There are of course, still many law graduates coming through the system who will always want to offer their services as paralegals to solicitors’ firms in the hope of being offered that valuable and elusive training contract. However, there are a vast number who are not entering the paralegal profession via this route.
These ‘career’ paralegals have come straight into the profession by taking bespoke paralegal qualifications, gaining experience within in-house legal departments or other companies and organisations, and then branching out on their own. Gaining a NALP Licence to Practise by providing evidence of competency through experience and knowledge, and having PII (Professional Indemnity Insurance) means that a Professional Paralegal Practitioner can now offer legal services to consumers provided they do not perform reserved legal activities.
Reserved Legal Activities are those that only solicitors have the monopoly to perform. However, even some of these activities are being eroded. For example, the Right of Audience (the right to represent your own client in court). Many courts are, at their discretion, allowing NALP Paralegals to step in and advocate on behalf of a client who may otherwise be representing themselves, with little knowledge of process.
Paralegals are filling a vast gap that has opened up since the virtual eradication of legal aid in 2013. As a consequence, many individuals are changing careers and are qualifying as paralegals because there is now a huge market and demand from consumers. Most consumers cannot afford the fees charged by solicitors which can be upwards of £150-£600 per hour, but a paralegal who is licenced to practise, may only charge £30-60 per hour for the same service.
It is increasingly important that consumers have faith in those that are offering their services as paralegals and thus, gaining a bespoke nationally recognised paralegal qualification, or at the very least, membership to the professional paralegal body (such as NALP), will give confidence, not only to those offering their services, but also to the recipients of these services.
About the author
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its training arm, NALP Training, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.