Vote will decide if CBA fee equivalent is a mandatory component of the practice fee

Law Society practice fee to be set by referendum

The Benchers will ask BC lawyers to set the 2005 practice fee in a referendum ballot, rather than at the Annual General Meeting in the Fall. This change will afford all lawyers a better opportunity to vote on whether a CBA fee equivalent should be a mandatory component of the practice fee.

Following consultations with the CBA, the Benchers are expected to set the wording of the referendum question at their meeting on April 2. The referendum is scheduled for June 23, with the deadline for the return of ballots on June 22. Formal notice of the referendum will be sent to the profession in April and the referendum ballot package will be mailed in May.

Mandatory payment of the CBA fee (or the fee equivalent) has sparked controversy for years and remained a focus of debate at almost every Law Society Annual Meeting since 1995. The issue has drawn away Bencher and staff time, as well as financial resources, to prepare for the debate and to face various legal challenges.

In the past 20 years there have been five lawsuits against the Law Society by lawyers who objected to a mandatory fee or fee equivalent. The most recent was a petition in BC Supreme Court by former President Richard Gibbs, QC who disputed the legal authority of Law Society members to include "an amount equivalent to" the CBA fee as part of the practice fee on a mandatory basis and the authority of the Law Society to remit those funds to the CBA. In December, 2003 the Supreme Court found there was such authority and dismissed the Gibbs petition. Subject to an appeal of that decision, the remaining question is one for the profession - whether the CBA fee equivalent should be a mandatory component of the practice fee.

To date, a majority of members attending the Annual General Meeting have answered that affirmatively, by approving a mandatory CBA fee or fee equivalent as part of the practice fee. But while the Benchers have made the AGM more accessible through regional teleconference sites joined to the main site in Vancouver, lawyers in some regions still cannot attend the AGM without travelling, sometimes a considerable distance. The CBA fee component was voted on by 434 lawyers in 2003, less than 4% of the profession.

In canvassing options this year, the Benchers decided on a referendum ballot to set the 2005 practice fee, to allow more BC lawyers the opportunity to vote and to settle the issue in a more conclusive fashion.

Section 23(1)(a) of the Legal Profession Act allows for the practice fee to be set by referendum:

Annual fees and practising certificate

23(1) A practising lawyer must pay to the society an annual fee consisting of:

(a) a practice fee in an amount set by a majority of the members voting on the resolution at a general meeting or in a referendum.

It is important to note that a referendum ballot conducted under section 23(1)(a) is not an opinion poll on the CBA fee issue. Instead, it is the means by which BC lawyers will set the 2005 practice fee and determine if an amount equivalent to the CBA fee should be a mandatory component of the practice fee. It will be a binding resolution in the same way as a practice fee resolution passed at an Annual General Meeting.

For more information, please watch for the notice of referendum and check the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.bc.ca for updates.