Definition of paralegal
paralegal (plural paralegals)
- (law) One who assists a lawyer in their routine work but who is without the qualified status of a solicitor or barrister (England and Wales), attorney (U.S.), or advocate; known more commonly in the U.S. as a legal assistant.
Paralegal is used in most jurisdictions to describe a paraprofessional who assists qualified lawyers in their legal work. This is true in the United States and many other countries. However, in Ontario, Canada, paralegals are licensed by the Law Society of Upper Canada, giving paralegals an independent status in this jurisdiction.
Paralegals are not the same in every country. In the United States, they are not authorized by the government or other agency to offer legal services in the same way, nor are they officers of the court, nor are they usually subject to government-/court-sanctioned rules of conduct. In Ontario, Canada, paralegals are licensed and regulated the same way that lawyers are. A paralegal license allows for the paralegal to provide permitted legal services to the public and appear before certain lower level courts and administrative tribunals.
In the United States, paralegals originated as assistants to lawyers at a time when only lawyers offered legal services. In those jurisdictions, such as the United States, where the local legal profession/judiciary is involved in paralegal recognition/accreditation, the profession of paralegal still basically refers to those people working under the direct supervision of a lawyer. In other jurisdictions however, such as the United Kingdom, the lack of local legal profession/judiciary oversight means that the definition of paralegal encompasses non-lawyers doing legal work, regardless of whom they do it for. Although most jurisdictions recognize paralegals to a greater or lesser extent, there is no international consistency as to definition, job-role, status, terms and conditions of employment, training, regulation or anything else and so each jurisdiction must be looked at individually.
Various legal organizations offer official definitions of a paralegal: these definitions typically have slight differences. Definitions offered by major organizations include:
- From the Paralegal Society of Ontario: "A paralegal is an individual qualified through education or experience licensed to provide legal services to the general public in areas authorized by the Law Society of Upper Canada
- From the United Kingdom's National Association of Licensed Paralegals: 'A person who is educated and trained to perform legal tasks but who is not a qualified solicitor or barrister'.
- From the American Bar Association: "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible." Under this definition, the legal responsibility for a paralegal's work rests directly and solely upon the lawyer.
- From the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) [USA]: "A Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts."
- From the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) [USA]: "Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney." In 2001, NALA adopted the ABA's definition of a paralegal or legal assistant as an addition to its definition.
- From the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE): "Paralegals perform substantive and procedural legal work as authorized by law, which work, in the absence of the paralegal, would be performed by an attorney. Paralegals have knowledge of the law gained through education, or education and work experience, which qualifies them to perform legal work. Paralegals adhere to recognized ethical standards and rules of professional responsibility."
- From the United Kingdom's Institute of Paralegals: "A paralegal is a non-lawyer who does legal work that previously would have been done by a lawyer, or if done by a lawyer, would be charged for."
- From the International Paralegal Management Association (IPMA) "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible." Under this definition, the legal responsibility for a paralegal's work rests directly and solely upon the lawyer."
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