The federal Liberal government’s recently enacted Bill C-75, an omnibus justice reform bill, has changed the standard length for maximum punishment on summary offences under the Criminal Code to 2 years.
This change has had the effect of limiting the ability of paralegals and other agents (such as law students) from representing people who are accused of summary conviction matters. Section 802.1 of the Criminal Code limits the use of agents such as paralegals and law students. This leaves no choice for the accused but to self-represent or hire a lawyer.
The financial eligibility limit for legal aid to cover a lawyer is extremely low and does not cover those with modest incomes. Only those with the most severe financial hardship qualify for legal aid, and this creates a space where many will have no choice but to self-represent. This leaves proper representation and therefore proper justice out of reach for too many.
The solution to this issue is available to the provincial cabinet through the same Criminal Code provision that creates it.
Section 802.1 of the Criminal Code provides that:
Despite subsections 800(2) and 802(2), a defendant may not appear or examine or cross-examine witnesses by agent if he or she is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term of more than six months, unless the defendant is a corporation or the agent is authorized to do so under a program approved by the lieutenant governor in council of the province.
This means that the provincial government is able to create a program to allow agents to represent on any summary conviction. By approving a program, the provincial government would improve access to justice immediately.
Paralegals already have the skills to represent on summary conviction matters. The Law Society of Ontario’s Bylaw 4 allows paralegals to represent a party before a summary conviction court. Nothing in Bylaw 4 prevents paralegals from representing clients in summary convictions – this limitation is provided solely by s 802.1 of the Criminal Code.
Given that paralegals charge significantly less than lawyers, they are an option for affordable representation for those accused.
By approving a program under section 802.1 of the Criminal Code, the provincial government can improve access to justice for those who are accused of summary offenses without spending a single dime of public money.