Conference highlights global nature of issues facing legal profession
by Art Vertlieb, QC
In April I was honoured to represent the Benchers of the Law Society at the bi-annual conference of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, held in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Commonwealth Lawyers Association is an international organization representing 54 countries that exists to promote and maintain the rule of law throughout the Commonwealth by ensuring an independent and efficient legal profession, with the highest standards of ethics and integrity.
Given the common ground of our legal systems, education and practice, Commonwealth lawyers have much to learn from one another. In this case, the theme of the conference was “Common Challenges – Common Solutions,” and it could not have been more fitting.
I attended several exceptional presentations on the changing face of the legal profession and the challenges of maintaining access to justice, coming away with a renewed appreciation that lawyers and regulators across the globe are wrestling with the same dilemmas we face in BC.
Among the challenges that were discussed were legal aid funding cutbacks, the need to expand the use of paralegals and other legal service delivery options, and judicial appointment processes that recognize “merit with bias” to ensure diversity of the bench.
The practice of law, though it may be managed at the provincial or state level, is a global profession, driven by international trade and the mobility of people. This creates common experiences and also provides for solutions that can be shared among jurisdictions.
Here in BC, we are learning a great deal from what is happening elsewhere, particularly in the United Kingdom. What’s more, others are learning from us, as I am frequently reminded when I attend such conferences.
Paralegals enthusiastic about providing options for legal services
Closer to home, I have been speaking to lawyers and paralegals about the new rules that allow supervised designated paralegals to provide legal advice and make limited appearances in family court.
The energy, interest and passion for this opportunity among paralegals are clearly evident, and I am hearing of a number of variations on how the new rules can work in practice.
We plan to profile in future editions of the Benchers’ Bulletin some of the success stories that are developing as a result of this opportunity. For those who read my letter to the Vancouver Sun in April of this year, you will know that the Benchers are urging lawyers to find ways to offer their clients greater price flexibility through the use of paralegals and articled students.
The need is obvious. Just recently, University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane released her report on the experiences of self-represented litigants. Her interviews with over 250 such individuals were disheartening and should cause great concern for the entire profession.
Whether or not the reasons for access to justice barriers are world-wide or local, each of us has a part to play in making much-needed changes. The profession has a long-standing tradition of improving society. We cannot now be slow to respond to the forces that are driving change. Given our proud history and experience, we must be willing to reform our business models and step out of our comfort zone.