Legal executives could be running their own practices by next year if the Legal Services Board’s consultation gets the green light. No doubt these proposals will have met with some robust responses from solicitors in the consultation, which closed today.
However one feels about this, at least such individuals are regulated by their own body, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). Moreover, the institute seeks to establish a compensation fund and wants powers of intervention if its plan goes ahead. There is a much more worrying issue for the public and our profession alike – the wholly unregulated ‘paralegal law firm’.
Since the wholesale wind-down of public funding, family law solicitors in particular have seen a significant rise in the number of litigants in person (LiPs). Between April and September last year, the first six months after changes to legal aid, the number of unrepresented parties at court in private law children proceedings stood at 21,574. This half-yearly figure was almost two-thirds (65%) of the annual number of unrepresented parties (33,294) who went to court in 2012/13.
A large number of this growing band of LiPs instruct paralegal law firms, perhaps unaware that they are not dealing with solicitors’ firms. As a specialist family law practice, we are having to deal with many more unqualified, unregulated and uninsured entities. At first glance their stationery and websites make them look like a solicitors’ firm.
Often there is nothing on their home page to suggest that they are not solicitors and not regulated. Instead, these ‘qualified paralegals’ list every possible qualification they might have, including cycling proficiency. If we have to look twice to confirm they are not solicitors, what chance has the public?
When my firm encountered one such outfit, we contacted the Practice Advice Service of the Law Society, which told us that lots are springing up. We were aware that the Society’s helpful practice note on litigants in person says that McKenzie friends are not permitted to act as LiP agents in relation to court proceedings or manage the case outside of court.
The note recommends that if you receive correspondence from a McKenzie friend on a LiP’s behalf, you should respond to the LiP directly and not to their McKenzie friend. The service told us that there is a fine line regarding how far these organisations can go without conducting litigation.
So what can be done? Earlier this month, at the justice select committee oral evidence session on civil legal aid changes, Jeremy Corbyn MP asked whether there is a case for some degree of regulation concerning McKenzie friends. I feel there is such a case, as well as for regulation of paralegal law firms.
In the absence of such regulation, solicitors must convey to potential clients what makes us their qualified, trusted advisers of choice. The Society has just launched a campaign to promote the services offered by high street solicitors to ensure members of the public, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises, understand how they can be helped. It is looking for stories of private clients who have been assisted for its video case studies, all backed by a PR, social media and advertising campaign.
We need to get involved.
We also need to up our game on our own marketing. Some paralegal law firms have a very swish internet presence and are highly skilled in social media. Many solicitors’ firms still don’t have a Twitter account.
Solicitors can also venture into disciplines where paralegals cannot follow. For example, our niche family law team now has an arbitrator, as well as offering all other areas of dispute resolution.
A few years ago, our profession went through a phase of removing the term ‘solicitors’ from logos and letterheads. No matter how trendy it might have been then to scrap it in a glossy makeover, it is a word that paralegal law firms cannot use. Now is the time to bring back the solicitor brand.
Tony Roe is principal of Tony Roe Solicitors, Berkshire