Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) published its Global Report on Ageism. This Report made me reflect further on how we as lawyers can combat ageism in the practice of law.
The WHO Report reinforces the need for us to recognize and combat ageism, especially given how rampant it is during the pandemic. For instance, last month advocates called on the Ontario Human Rights Commission to conduct an inquiry to address systemic ageism in Ontario’s health care system exacerbated by the pandemic. As members of the legal profession, we handle cases involving people of all ages. We must recognize when ageism occurs. Upon that recognition, we can begin to take steps to combat it.
What is Ageism?
WHO’s Report describes ageism as follows:
Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age.
While the Report did not speak to the practice of law, it does state that “1 in 2 people worldwide are ageist”. It is important to note that ageism can, like many other things, occur unconsciously. I believe these unconscious manifestations of ageism are what we need to pay the most attention to as they are not always clear. Some examples of ageism that I have seen include:
Stereotypes: will challenge allegations that a deceased person was fragile, vulnerable and susceptible to undue influence due their age.
Prejudice: the rights to privacy, confidentiality and due process being downplayed or wholly disregarded in guardianship disputes.
Discrimination: lawyers requiring a potential client to undergo a capacity assessment before considering drafting a will for an older client.
When ageism intersects with another bias, such as sexism or ableism, the discrimination may be exacerbated. For example, perceiving an older person as cognitively impaired because of a mental hiccup that anyone could have is a particularly common issue that I have seen in capacity-related disputes. This is an example of ageism intersecting with ableism. Ableism can occur when a disability is perceived regardless of the existence of measurable cognitive impairment. As lawyers, we need to be particularly cognizant of a broad intersectional context as we advise and advocate for our clients.