It’s hard to believe December is upon us. The month kicked off with much fanfare at a lively Convocation that addressed issues the OBA continues to advocate for on behalf of its members and the public we serve.
The night before Convocation, the Law Society shared for the first time their specific recommendations regarding the expanded scope of practice for paralegals in family law, leaving no time for stakeholders to examine the proposed plan. Despite the impossibly short notice and overall vagueness, the benchers proceeded to debate and vote on the recommendations. The result is a path forward into uncertainty without consultation or arguably, informed decision-making on the part of the LSUC. We are actively looking for opportunities where the bar can communicate and consult on this issue moving forward.
The “Conscientious Objector” motion put forward by Bencher Joe Groia, that would allow licensees to abstain from The Law Society’s freshly installed Statement of Principles (SOP), was defeated. I see this as a significant win and an opportunity to address the concept of SOP at this time. This tiny step, seen by some as merely notional or even without value, was met with the kind of resistance that is the best and worst of lawyers. It was labelled compelled speech. It was decried as compelled belief. It has been attacked as ultra vires the authority of the Law Society. Hyperbole and wildly hypothetical straw man and slippery slope arguments were advanced and dissected. To the great detriment of the profession this exercise was played out in mainstream media. All the while, the Law Society was conspicuously absent from addressing these attacks in defence or clarification.
It’s as though the entire raison d’être was lost in the race to ‘test the merits’ of the Statement. Have we become so desensitized to the notion that our profession treats people differently based on the colour of their skin that we feel we can afford to meander through almost exclusively academic considerations of this baby step toward equity attempted by the Law Society? The Statement is not compelled speech, it is compelled conduct. It is within the regulator’s mandate to compel just that in the profession. One doesn’t have to believe anything to comply, one simply has to comply. Most importantly, it is an articulation of existing legal and ethical duties contained in the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Human Rights Code and the oath we all took when we were called to the bar in the first instance. This is not a new requirement, it is language consolidating existing requirements with the hopes that it will turn the licensee’s mind to the issue of systemic racism and inequity at least once a year when they fill out their Lawyer’s Annual Report.
For some, it will be a box checking exercise. For others, it will trigger an ongoing reflection on what they have done and what more they can do. It is always this latter group that creates change. The real problem, if it can be called that, is the manner in which the Statement requirement was delivered by the Law Society.
Confusion around the implications of the Statement on a licensee’s obligations in practice and in their community were a certainty. The scope and focus were unclear. Lawyers have a right to understand their professional obligations, as much as they have a professional responsibility to uphold them. The ambiguity has been rectified to a large measure with the delivery of a guide; but not before a huge amount of damage to the spirit and intent of the Statement was done. Not before those racialized licensees were exposed to yet another indication from the profession that the issue of systemic racism isn’t as important as other things. There was violence done to the work and intention of the report that can not be repeated. As per my letter to The Law Society, they must do better rolling out the remaining recommendations.
Needless to say, in part due to the timing of SOP, the conversations that took place at RODA’s 3rd Annual Diversity Conference in Partnership with the OBA took on a new level of relevance. And everyone there felt it. My term goals are rooted in common objectives, however, I know that the OBA can’t meet them without the kind of dialogue and insight that unfolded throughout the day from both speakers and attendees.
At the conference, I announced some new initiatives as part of the OBA’s commitment to Diversity. Our Professional Development team has been hard at work developing the Inclusive Leader Series. Spring 2018 will see the launch of programs focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in our profession. These programs will offer tools to raise awareness of unconscious biases, to help you be a champion of change in your organization. These are tools to help you constructively identify areas that need improvement - areas like recruitment, how work is assigned and how to provide better legal services to diverse communities that ultimately build a stronger practice. These are programs with actionable information that need to permeate the hearts and minds of all legal professionals if we truly want to see change.
The second initiative I wanted to mention is The OBA Diversity Program. We have always welcomed input from the DP Associations and their individual members, however we are moving beyond the welcome mat. We are asking diversity associations to join us as we begin to expand the existing program. Ten associations are already involved in facilities and administrative support by the OBA, however we hope to add to this in new ways that will help our peer associations grow their membership and help overcome historical under-representation of racialized lawyers in all aspects of the profession, at all levels of seniority. With this kind of collaboration, non-racialized lawyers can raise their diversity intelligence, and in doing so, become better lawyers, better equipped to service the realities of a diverse population.
Previously in pilot mode, MAG announced that civil claims online filing is now available across Ontario as of November 27, a major step in the advancement of modernizing our court system and improving access to justice. Please make sure you set up a Justice Services Online account which you will need to access the civil claims online filing service.
Make a Will Month, an OBA public awareness campaign aimed at raising awareness of the importance of a lawyer-drafted will as well as an opportunity to provide tools for Trust and Estates lawyers, ran throughout November. It was a resounding success. In addition to the creative campaign that you may have seen on the TTC, Go Train or on social media, there were 42 Speakers Bureau sessions held in four cities, in three languages. A whopping 1200+ members of the pubic attended the free legal information sessions presented by volunteer members of the Trust and Estates bar at libraries and community hubs. The feedback from the librarians and the public was excellent. A big thank you to all members that presented throughout the month. It could not have happened without you!
This has been a tumultuous year, globally, nationally and provincially. This is a time of reconciliation, a time that is seeing cultural shifts across borders and across industries. The OBA will continue to be part of these conversations and we look to you, our members – and our peer associations – for your valued input.
Have a wonderful holiday season. Spread love, kindness and generosity to everyone around you. Seek out those who are not as close to you and those less fortunate, and spread it around to them too.