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Lawyers and paralegals: what’s the difference?

A paralegal is someone with training and knowledge of the law who can provide a limited range of legal services, often under supervision of a lawyer. If you have a legal concern or question, a paralegal may be a more affordable alternative to a lawyer. But there are differences between the two  and a lawyer can offer a much wider range of assistance.

A paralegal’s responsibilities and areas of practice depends on their jurisdiction. Each province and territory strictly defines the rights, restrictions, and regulations governing the job, and there is some variation.

What they can do

A primary difference between the two is when and where they can represent you. A lawyer can represent you in any type of legal proceeding or tribunal, from small claims court to the Supreme Court of Canada and on any type of legal issue.

Paralegals are much more limited. They can represent you in small claims court, traffic court, or tribunals like a landlord and tenant board, or the Workplace Safety Insurance Board.

A paralegal can also act as counsel for Immigration Refugee Board tribunals, but cannot represent you in case of an appeal that goes to federal court.

Depending on the province, a paralegal may represent you in other cases. In Ontario, they can represent you for minor criminal offences like shoplifting, or anything else with a sentence of less than six months.

They cannot assist with drafting legal documents like wills.

Certification and regulation

A lawyer has far more education than a paralegal. On average, a lawyer has at least seven years of education, plus articling with a firm. Paralegals attend a few years of college, but they do not attend law school or have a law degree.

Paralegals are not licensed or regulated in most provinces and they must work under supervision of a lawyer. In 2006, Ontario became the first province to begin regulating its paralegals, meaning they can operate independently. An independent paralegal is required to carry insurance, just as a lawyer is. Ontario paralegals are regulated through the Law Society of Upper Canada, and you can use its web site to find a paralegal and ensure they are in good standing.