President’s Blog
Ken Walker, QC
April 14, 2015

At the April Benchers meeting, the Benchers spent some time discussing the implementation of two unanimous resolutions they had previously passed. The first was the decision in December 2013 to adopt the recommendations of the Legal Service Providers Task Force to seek to merge regulatory operations with the Society of Notaries Public of BC. The second was the decision in December 2014 to adopt the recommendations of the Legal Services Regulatory Framework Task Force to seek legislative amendments that would permit the Law Society to establish categories of non-lawyer legal service providers. Both the discussions with the notaries and the government are now in the formative stage.

Merging our regulatory operations with those of the notaries was prompted by a letter from then Minister of Justice Shirley Bond. She asked that we and the notaries consider this possibility. The intention was to enhance protection of the public through a unified regulatory regime, create efficiencies in the regulation of legal services and improve access to legal services. The impetus was the recognition that both societies regulate legal services. Our society regulates more than 11,000 practising lawyers. The Notaries society regulates just over 300 notaries public. Two separate regulatory organizations and different regimes is not the best model.

The decision to seek a legislative change to allow the Law Society to recognize and regulate non-lawyer legal service providers in areas of unmet need was not taken lightly. It was prompted by the possibility of enhancing access to legal services around the province in specific areas of law by recognizing persons with the proper education and credentials and allowing them to independently provide limited legal services. Other jurisdictions have already adopted such regimes, including Ontario and Washington State. At present, this is not an option for British Columbia. The legislative amendment, if passed, would permit us to create non-lawyer members where we considered it necessary and appropriate.

The public expects the provision of legal services to be regulated consistently. The public expects that legal services are accessible. These are reasonable expectations. A level regulatory playing field for all legal service providers serves that public interest. A single regulator can level the playing field ensuring regulation of legal service providers is fair and transparent and all legal service providers are both credentialed and competent. There is now an opportunity for us to create that unified regulatory regime for all providers of legal services. While the outcome is not guaranteed, the Benchers have resolved to discuss the possibility with the Notaries and government. The terms governing our discussions with the Notaries are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding which is available here.

To further these discussions, the Benchers have created two working groups to examine preliminary issues.

One group will assess the competencies and education required to properly protect the public interest in the specific areas in which the notaries are seeking an expanded scope of practice. These areas are the same as they sought from the government in 2012, namely simple incorporations, wills with life estates and trusts, probate documents and simple family law agreements. At that time, the Law Society and the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch raised issues about the qualifications of notaries to provide these services, which we plan to address through the efforts of the working group. The qualifications working group will consist of two Benchers, two representatives of the Notaries, a representative of the CBABC and one or more experts in legal education.

The second working group will look at issues of governance. The notaries will, in the event of a single unified regulatory regime, need a "voice and vote" at the table. This raises a number of questions. For example, what representation should the notaries have on the board? How will the notaries participate on committees? What is the appropriate basis for voting and decision-making? The working group will be expected to consider these questions. The governance working group will consist of two Benchers and two representatives of the Notaries.

I expect the two working groups to report back at the June Benchers meeting. The issues being considered by the working groups are just preliminary ones. There are many other issues around any merger that will need to be resolved if we come to an agreement in principle on these two areas.

This work is all in the formative stage and the reports of the working groups will help determine the basis for any further steps. We will keep you informed. The Benchers are interested in what you think, and I encourage you to reach out to your Bencher if you have questions or if you want to share your views.

Access to legal services and justice is on everyone's mind and we lawyers must do what we can. The legal landscape is evolving, and our duty as a regulator is to take ownership of this challenge. We will continue to think out of the box, and be innovative in our approach to the problem, as we consider and debate how best to bring legal services to the public in the future.