It is easy to associate “human rights” with lawyers as simply a practice area - and rightly so. Lawyers play a critical role as advocates in ensuring that equality, fairness, and the principles of human rights are upheld in society as a whole. Those who specialize in this area spend day and night working on behalf of clients who may have faced difficult human rights violations in the course of their employment, access to services, group memberships or associations, contracts, and in their accommodation. Yet beyond fighting for human rights, has anyone ever really stopped to think about lawyers’ own obligations under the Human Rights Code?
As a regulated profession, lawyers are subject to the rules of obligations imposed upon them by the Law Society of Ontario. These include obligations with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion in the practice of law. Strip away the regulatory aspect, however, and lawyers at their core are service providers first and foremost. In their interactions with clients, lawyers are just as bound to ensuring an environment free from discrimination as they are in their workplaces and on behalf of their clients. We are no different in our obligations in that respect than our friends who may be architects, engineers, doctors, or community service workers: ultimately, we are under a duty to allow someone seeking our services to be free of discrimination. This includes a duty to accommodate any protected characteristics of a client enumerated under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
This premise itself might feel obvious – but in a year that has been monumental for the profession in terms of understanding just what diversity and equity mean to us, it is so important to re-examine these obligations. For example, most of us are aware of our duties of professionalism and to the administration of justice. We will spend ages building up a client base and a reputation to match within and outside the profession. How often do we remove our “profession hat” to view ourselves as fundamentally service providers? How often do we think about the manner in which we serve and unconsciously select clients? Or, the manner in which we make our services available to different ethnic, minority, or sociocultural backgrounds? Are we checking our biases before we adopt an approach or advise a client?
The realm of sexual assault and violence against women illustrates this point. I have seen some files in my own practice where no proper investigations into sexual harassment or assault allegations occurred, notwithstanding the presence of an in-house lawyer in the company. Poisoned work environments meant that complainants lost trust in those that might have been able to help, which in turn inadvertently fuelled further discrimination. I have also seen instances where a victim of domestic violence from a racialized, marginalized community is patronized and admonished by lawyers for her choices – lawyers who, while meaning well, took no time to understand the culture or societal pressures that had led to her entrapment in such a relationship. No effort, in either of these scenarios, was made to understand and research the client’s point of view – in other words, to accommodate their protected characteristic of gender and/or race in these scenarios.
Beyond such extreme circumstances, it is also important to note the subtle manners in which our human rights obligations influence our service provision. It is important to think about the judgments we may make or the biases that might subtly be influencing our decision-making or our approaches to files. At the end of the day, no human beings can escape bias – it is part of our nature to differentiate based on our upbringing and unique experiences in life. It is so critical, as service providers, to recognize our biases and understand what we need to do to correct them. Do we take the time to understand whether our approach to a file, based on our own experiences, is something that is best for our client both in terms of their rights and in terms of the other aspects of their lives? For example, many of us will be familiar with our obligations under the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) for ensuring our workplaces are accessible and compliant with this legislation. Do we ever stop and think what we would do to serve a client with an understanding of their background and daily life?
I ask these questions because really, it is time we all ensure that we ask ourselves such things. Equality and diversity are not just something to be aware of – rather, we must be aware of the fact that in today’s Ontario, these concepts interact with everything we do. Our workplaces, our clients, and our roles as a profession are deeply intertwined with these human rights-focused principles. As service providers, we need to keep in mind and respect our human rights obligations at all times – for it is once we take a hard look at our “services” that we can perfect ourselves as “lawyers”.
About the author
Richa Sandill is a Toronto-based lawyer specializing in employment and human rights law and a member of the OBA’s Equality Committee.