Forty students taking a paralegal course at Humber College gave Harry Kopyto two enthusiastic rounds of applause when he addressed two combined ethics classes at Humber College in northwest Toronto on April 4, 2011 as a guest speaker.
Harry outlined the history of the paralegal profession as it emerged in North America and elsewhere in the 1970s in response to a worsening economic climate and the increased unaffordability of legal services. He described the self-organization of paralegals into voluntary associations which held conferences, provided educational materials and seminars and insured paralegals with errors-and-omissions insurance. He outlined how small and solo law firms in Ontario subsequently started complaining about competition from more affordable paralegals and, in particular, how they were taking away services that smaller law firms used to train junior lawyers. Over thirty-five years, the number of paralegals in Ontario increased from a few hundred to close to 4,000.
Many of the smaller law firms found it difficult to justify their legal fees when the same work was being done, by and large efficiently, inexpensively and honestly, by paralegals. Riding a tidal wave of self-righteous indignation, the small law firms who were directly competing with the paralegals were able to use the Ontario Bar Association to lobby the Law Society to corral paralegals into an internal colony of disenfranchised peons with a savagely reduced scope of practice. The Conservative, and later the Liberal, Ontario government approved the takeover despite universal opposition from trade unions, the NDP, paralegal groups and social activists.
Harry described his own situation. He outlined some of the cases which brought the attention of the legal elite to his law practice and how he was challenging the Access to Justice Act that provided a legal framework for the takeover in his good character grandparenting application. Harry pointed out that legal and political campaigns can combine to achieve successful changes in the law referring specifically to his own fight for equal treatment of gays, freedom of expression and human rights cases. Harry challenged the class to carry on the fight for an autonomous profession governing itself in conjunction with public oversight.
Harry was flagged for his spot as a guest speaker by some students who saw him perform in the Toronto Small Claims Court earlier in the year. Judging by the cheers and applause that greeted his speech, they were not disappointed.