Road map for 2010
by G. Glen Ridgway, QC
The year 2009 marked the 125th year of the Law Society of British Columbia. Our focus was self-regulation and the independence of the legal profession. Our former President, Gordon Turriff, QC, travelled throughout the province to meet with the public to spread this message, with an emphasis on the importance of our profession’s independence in the functioning of our justice system and our Society in general. This was an approach fully supported by the Law Society and its Benchers, and Mr. Turriff is to be commended for the effort and the personal commitment that he made to that cause. I am sure he will continue to speak out on that subject.
In addition to the cause of independence, the Law Society has had a busy agenda over the last number of years. We have reorganized our committee structure, we have focused on small firms and their needs, and we have introduced compulsory professional development. It has been a busy few years.
A number of years ago, when I started on the process that resulted in my Presidency, I indicated to Benchers that it was my view that 2010 should be a year where we “do nothing.” I do not know whether it was that, or for some other reason, that I was permitted to advance onto the ladder towards the Presidency. Unfortunately, I will not be able to deliver on that promise. There are a number of tasks that must be advanced this year, and it will be no holiday for the Benchers and staff of the Law Society of British Columbia.
In the latter part of 2009, our Discipline Committee began working on some modifications or new approaches to our discipline process. These will continue in 2010, with the full support and involvement of the Benchers. We are also seeking input from members and non-members as to these approaches.
Firstly, we have given direction to the Discipline Committee and staff to “speed up” the process. The Benchers, lawyers and the general public think our process can, on occasion, take too long from start to completion. We have directed the Discipline Committee and staff to achieve the goal of one year as the maximum time allotted between when a complaint is received and when it is first dealt with by the Discipline Committee. The committee and staff are now actively working on ensuring this objective.
Once that has been completed, we will be considering the next stage of the process, that being Discipline Committee to final resolution. That period of time must also be reduced.
There are two task forces presently working on other aspects of the discipline process. The Discipline Guidelines Task Force is looking at establishing guidelines for the Discipline Committee in dealing with various categories of complaint, with the goal of ensuring that similar types of complaints are dealt with in a similar fashion. The end result will hopefully be a situation in which members and the public have a clearer knowledge ahead of time as to how a complaint will be dealt with, be it a process that results in a conduct meeting, a conduct review or a citation.
The other task force is dealing with the duality of roles played by Benchers in discipline matters. Currently, we are both the prosecutors and, through our discipline panels, the adjudicators. The review of this issue may result in some profound and significant changes in the role of the Law Society and, in particular, the Benchers. There is Court authority that the Benchers are best able to deal with issues of discipline, and that certainly is the feeling of past and, to a large part, present Benchers.
Different subsets of Benchers hear discipline matters at various stages in the process. However, there is a concern that, at some point, a Court review will question whether we should be both the prosecutors (through our Discipline Committee) and the judges (through our discipline panels). Does this approach offend basic fairness?
The main factor to be considered is the public view. Does the public think it fair and appropriate that complaints about lawyers are dealt with by lawyers? We have heard the public’s comments about other occupations. We are aware of the process that the Provincial Government has put in place for the health professions and do not believe that that is an approach that best serves the public or our members.
And so a task force will be looking into this issue. It will decide whether the present system is the best or whether a system that involves Benchers dedicated solely to the Discipline Committee and Benchers dedicated solely to discipline panels, or the use of Life Benchers as adjudicators, other lawyers as adjudicators, or members of the public as adjudicators, provides a better avenue to protect the public interest. It will also look at how these matters are handled in other jurisdictions.
Needless to say, we want to hear from the members with respect to these issues. Please let us hear from you.
The Federation of Law Societies is also working on a National Model Code of Conduct, which we hope will form the basis for codes of conduct throughout Canada. It is now in the hands of our Ethics Committee. The results of their work will be posted on our website and communicated to members. Please let us have your input.
At last year’s Annual General Meeting, we were directed by the members to do something about the low level of participation in our profession by our indigenous population. We are all aware that the number of Aboriginal lawyers does not match the percentage of the BC population made up of Aboriginals. Aboriginal lawyers are dropping out of the profession. Aboriginal law graduates are not achieving articling or employment positions. We were directed by resolutions at the Annual General Meeting to take steps in this regard. While we have not established a specific committee or hired personnel specifically for this task, we do have a committee working on the subject. It was focused on the area prior to the resolutions from the AGM. It is gathering data on the subjects about which concern has been expressed, that is, articling positions, jobs, and retention in the profession. We are allowing that committee to come up with its recommendations before advancing with the specific resolutions from the Annual General Meeting.
We want to hear from our First Nations lawyers with respect to this subject. We would also like to encourage those in the Aboriginal community who have dropped out of the legal profession to let us know why they did so and those aspects of the profession that they feel got in their way. Please let us know, and let friends and former colleagues in that position know that we want to hear from them.
We are also looking at some concrete ways that we in the legal profession can make our services more affordable. We are hearing constantly that justice is too costly and, as a result, people do not have access to justice. We have a task force looking at things that we can do to enable legal services to be more available to the general public. Should we change our rules to enable paralegals or articled students to meet some basic needs of our clients? Are there other rules that can be changed to assist with affordability? Please let us know your views in this regard.
I must say it is a great honour to be selected the President of the Law Society of British Columbia. I would like to thank Bruce LeRose, QC and Scott Van Alstine, QC for the very supportive articles that they wrote about me in the Benchers’ Bulletin and the upcoming Advocate. My non-lawyer friends have seen Bruce’s article, and they are wondering who it’s about. They think Bruce has the potential for a great career in fiction.
As can be seen from the articles, I have spent all of my life in small communities, and I hope to be able to do something to focus some attention on the practice of law in small communities. Frankly, we are running out of lawyers outside of Metro Vancouver and Victoria. The demographics point to fewer lawyers and older lawyers in the small towns of our province. I hope to re-focus the need for competent legal services in the non-urban centres. I hope to be at call ceremonies throughout BC, including regional call ceremonies in our smaller communities. I also hope to attend meetings of lawyers throughout the province, so please call me and arrange for me to come and meet with your legal community.
Finally, I also intend to phone lawyers throughout the province to talk about practice issues, the role of the Law Society in their lives and the role that they can play in the Law Society. Don’t be concerned when I call. Please answer and spend a few minutes with me discussing those things that we can do to ensure that the BC public is well served by the lawyers in your communities and that you are well served by the Law Society.
I can be reached at the Law Society office at 604-669-2533 or firstname.lastname@example.org or at my own office at 250-746-7121 or email@example.com.