Paralegals: Who are They? Roles & Responsibilities in Singapore
If you’ve hired a lawyer to help you with a legal matter in Singapore, you may have heard the lawyer mention that their “paralegal” will be assisting them in the process. Just who are such individuals, and what do they do?
This article will explain:
Who are Paralegals?
Paralegals are people with an intermediate knowledge of the law who assist and support lawyers in their legal work here in Singapore.
What are the Roles of a Paralegal in Singapore?
A paralegal’s main role is to provide legal and administrative support to a lawyer in their legal work. The legal aspect of a paralegal’s role often comes in the form of undertaking legal research to highlight areas of law that may be relevant to a client’s case. This includes searching and perusing past cases with similar facts or applications of the law that allow a lawyer to strengthen his reasoning towards a present case.
The administrative aspect of their role comes in the form of assisting a lawyer in ways such as:
- Executing standard forms
- Electronically filing legal documents through Singapore’s eLitigation court filing system
- Performing property, bankruptcy or any other relevant searches
- Preparing correspondence with clients
What are the Responsibilities of Paralegals?
A paralegal’s main responsibilities revolve around gathering and providing the relevant reports and documents to assist the lawyer in better establishing their case. Paralegals are most often responsible for duties such as:
- Drafting and maintaining correspondence with clients
- Legal research and fact-gathering
- Taking minutes during client-lawyer meetings
- Case planning and management
- Drafting of pleadings, discoveries and affidavits
- Managing appointment and hearing dates
- Preparing for and assisting with trials
Specific responsibilities vary for different types of legal practices. For instance, a family law paralegal may be involved in preparing and drafting Schedules of Assets, as well as scheduling appointments for court appearances and family mediation hearings.
On the other hand, the responsibilities of a criminal law paralegal would be more specific towards preparing criminal defences, such as researching sentencing precedents and drafting mitigation pleas.
How Do Paralegals Differ From Lawyers?
Paralegals and lawyers do have overlapping roles and responsibilities as both may liaise with clients, conduct legal research and execute standard forms, among others. However, there are still differences that distinguish them apart. The main distinction between the two would be:
- The authority to practise law
- The qualifications required
The authority to practise law
In Singapore, only lawyers who have a valid practising certificate are allowed to practise law in Singapore. This means that they will have the authority to give clients legal advice and represent them in legal proceedings, such as court hearings. As paralegals typically do not hold a practising certificate, they will not be able to practise law in Singapore.
The qualifications required
The educational qualifications required to obtain a practising certificate, and become a lawyer, is far higher and requires more commitment than those for becoming a paralegal. The journey to becoming a lawyer first involves obtaining a law degree from an approved law school in Singapore or certain foreign countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. This typically requires at least four years of study.
The law graduate then has to take a 6-month “Part B” preparatory course leading to the Singapore Bar Examinations, and pass the “Part B” exam. (If the law student graduated from an approved foreign law school, they will also have to attend a “Part A” Bar course, pass the “Part A” exam and complete a relevant training period of 6 months before being allowed to take the “Part B” course and exam.)
Finally, the aspiring lawyer will have to complete a 6-month practice training period under the supervision of a supervising solicitor, before being able to get called to the Singapore Bar and practise law in Singapore. (From 2023, the practice training period will be increased to 1 year.)
On the flip side, being a paralegal in Singapore requires only a diploma in legal studies or in a law-related field, which is typically a 3-year course. This is to ensure they have basic legal knowledge as well as how to perform legal research and assist a lawyer to execute legal procedures.
As compared to an individual who can become a paralegal after completing their studies from a 3-year diploma in legal studies or a law-related field, it is also definitely more expensive and strenuous to complete the relevant education requirements to be qualified to practise law in Singapore.
What are Paralegals Not Allowed to Do?
As mentioned previously, a paralegal is not able to practise law without first attaining the relevant educational requirements.
It would be the responsibility of the lawyer to supervise their subordinate paralegals to ensure that they do not carry out tasks that represent themselves as a lawyer, or carry out acts that only a lawyer is allowed to perform. The acts listed below are examples of things that only a lawyer, but not a paralegal, can perform:
- Make an appearance before any court in Singapore, such as hearings or chambers and at pre-trial conferences
- Engage in discussions of criminal matters with enforcement agencies, police officers or prosecutors
- Conduct litigation matters and procedures
- Publish, or take steps to facilitate the publication of, materials concerning any proceedings of the court
- Provide legal advice to a client
Paralegals may not perform such acts even if they previously had a practising certificate to practise law in Singapore if the practising certificate has expired.
A lawyer’s failure to take measures to prevent a person who is not qualified to practise law from doing the above-stated acts would risk suspension of their practising certificate, along with a fine.
As for paralegals who act outside the scope of their permitted duties, they may be found guilty of an offence under the Legal Profession Act for falsely representing themselves to be a lawyer. If convicted, they can be fined up to $25,000 or imprisoned for up to 6 months or given both punishments. The maximum penalties are doubled for subsequent convictions.
A similar case happened In 2020, where a lawyer, Jonathan Tan, failed to ensure that his paralegal, Colin Phan, did not act outside of his permitted duties. Despite knowing that Mr Phan did not possess a valid practising certificate, Mr Tan allowed him to send out 5 emails to 3 individuals to provide legal services and advice in which he represented himself as a lawyer. The two men also split the legal fees obtained through their work on a case-by-case basis, with this being a prohibited arrangement as persons unauthorised to practise law may not be paid for any legal work they provide.
Not only did Mr Tan, who was Mr Phan’s supervising lawyer, fail to exercise reasonable due diligence to prevent his paralegal from performing acts outside of his permitted duties, he had also authorised it. Thus, the court held that this was a blatant disregard of the professional and ethical standards of the legal profession. This resulted in a 3-month suspension of Mr Tan’s practising certificate along with a fine of S$8,000.
A paralegal plays an essential part in Singapore’s legal industry as they provide critical aid and support towards a client’s case through legal research and gathering of relevant documents, among other responsibilities. Without expert assistance from a paralegal, a legal matter could take a longer time to resolve and cause further detriment to the parties involved. However, there is only so much a paralegal can do, as compared to a qualified lawyer.
If you are currently tied up in a legal matter and have not engaged a lawyer, we highly advise that you do so to obtain legal advice and/or representation for your case. A lawyer (with the help of their paralegal) could also help you file important court documents within the required deadlines so that your matter is concluded expeditiously.
If you are of the view that you require a lawyer to assist you, try our free Find a Lawyer service to get quotations from multiple lawyers and identify the lawyer who can meet your needs the best.
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