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Why paralegals should no longer be seen as expendable

Paralegals have borne the brunt of redundancies at law firms but the role they perform could be about to come into its own, writes Amanda Hamilton, head of paralegals’ professional body.

As the longest running professional membership body for paralegals in England, the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) has significant insight into the lives of its members and how they have been affected by the pandemic and lockdown generally.

Within the legal profession it has long been regarded that paralegals are the support staff to solicitors, since many are graduates who are seeking to eventually become solicitors.

Many accept the role of paralegal within the firm to gain experience and with the hope that eventually they will be offered that very important training contract. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that in many cases these employees are the expendable ones and have borne the brunt of any necessary redundancies.

Firms that have valued their paralegal staff in the past have maintained that level of recognition and continued to value their services. Since paralegals are charged out at a lower fee to clients, it makes sense to help clients who are financially stretched to offer legal assistance at this level.

In other sectors, however, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Organisations in the private or public sectors with in-house legal departments employing paralegals have been able either to keep them on furlough or continue to utilise their services to help them through the difficult process of financial survival through the pandemic.

It appears that those who have been hardest hit by redundancies are the ones who have gained paralegal positions within law firms. Others who work in-house have tended to be furloughed, while paralegals who have become independent paralegal practitioners tend to have thrived during these unprecedented times. It seems to be the case that the cost of instructing solicitors or barristers at this time has caused financial stress for many consumers.

Furthermore, information seen by NALP confirms that many non-legal sector businesses are utilising the services of independent paralegal practitioners, instead of solicitors, because of the cost factor involved.

Consumers are beginning to understand that approaching paralegals for assistance makes financial sense. Since most legal work can be performed by paralegals, the exception being reserved legal activities, there is huge scope to assist consumers in a variety of ways, without having to pay huge fees.

The plain fact is that since legal aid was virtually eradicated in 2013, consumers have struggled to access justice. Paralegals who have proven qualifications and have provided evidence of their competency can apply for a Licence to Practise once they have gained PII.

Once attained, they can offer legal services directly to consumers. Such independent paralegal practitioners are now filling the gap left by the eradication of legal aid. They provide access to justice at a reasonable cost. Of course, this does not detract from the fact that many solicitors and barrister offer pro-bono work, which is highly commendable. However, the extent of such pro-bono work is stretching the profession, causing immeasurable delays in the courts (as there are so many more litigants in person) and is surely unsustainable for the profession in the long run.

Enter the role of the licensed paralegal practitioner who may only charge 10% of the fees that a solicitor may charge. Thus, although the paralegal sector has suffered losses during the pandemic, the fact they have been offering consumers and businesses an affordable alternative when it comes to legal issues has stood them in good stead during these troubled times. People can search for a paralegal on the National Paralegal Register. There are four areas where demand for paralegal services has risen:

Debt recovery and payment negotiation

Now pandemic restrictions are easing, it’s likely many lenders will start to ask for debts to be repaid. Paralegals will be supporting clients who are being chased for money they owe, and likewise supporting those who are owed money.

Employment issues

Our working lives will no doubt change. Some may be required to revert to travelling to work, but others will be asked to continue working remotely. This may be an employment law issue where both employees and employers need legal support and advice.

Litigation for breach of contract

There may well be an increase in civil litigation claims based on breaches of contract. For example, if a consumer purchases an item online from a business that relies on deliveries of materials, but the supplier hasn’t enough capital to purchase the materials in the first place, this could give rise to serial breaches of contract.

Landlord and tenant

Tenants who can’t afford to pay their rent because of loss of income may face eviction under a Notice to Quit is served on them. With the eviction ban now over, we may see landlords look to reclaim properties from tenants who are severely behind on their rent or who are indulging in anti-social behaviour. Again, both parties are likely to need to legal help in this situation.

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