Protecting the public interest for 125 years
Benchers of the Law Society, 1897
Benchers of the Law Society, 2008
In 1884, the BC government passed the Legal Profession Act — legislation that incorporated the Law Society of British Columbia. One hundred twenty-five years later, the Law Society remains true to its purpose of protecting the public interest in the administration of justice.
By Cara McGregor, staff writer
The roots of the Law Society, like the law that its members practise, trace back to England. Motivated in part by the new-found wealth of the gold rush, Queen Victoria dispatched an experienced English lawyer, Matthew Baillie Begbie, to establish and protect the lands to which her country laid claim.
Begbie crossed the Atlantic Ocean and most of the North American continent to a fledgling outpost, bringing with him official documents establishing the Colony of British Columbia. Those papers were signed by Gov. James Douglas on November 18, 1858 at Fort Langley. The following day, Begbie was sworn into office as High Court Judge of the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island.
On December 24, 1858, Justice Begbie published an Order of the Court which gave the first official recognition to barristers and solicitors in the colonies. The Order noted that only one lawyer was qualified to act as a barrister in a court of law — Henry Pering Pellew Crease.
As BC’s first lawyer, he would prove to be critical in solidifying the self-regulation of the legal profession.
The case of Felix O’Byrne
Crease was not the only lawyer who made the voyage from England. Felix O’Byrne arrived in the colony in 1863, having occupied himself during his travels by cheating his fellow passengers at cards.
O’Byrne had qualified to be a barrister in England but had never been called to the Bar. But Begbie’s Order of Court provided for call of persons who had been called or had qualified; O’Byrne applied and a Certificate of Call was issued.
O’Byrne’s admission caused Crease, then Attorney General of BC, great concern. He called together the practising members of the Bar to discuss the O’Byrne matter and review his paperwork. After deliberation with his colleagues, Crease drafted a letter to Justice Begbie requesting that he withdraw O’Byrne’s Call Certificate and modify the Order of Court of 1858 to prevent others like O’Byrne from practising law in BC. Begbie agreed with Crease and struck the words “or had qualified” from the Order, essentially disbarring O’Byrne from practice.
In a letter dated August 6, 1863, Begbie notified Crease of the amendment to the Order, in closing stating, “I have, however, to thank you for the protection which you have in this instance successfully accorded the profession at the head of which you stand, and I have the honour to be, Sir, your very obedient servant.”
Foundations of a society
The O’Byrne incident made it clear to Crease that the legal profession needed to be regulated. Moreover, Begbie’s lengthy absences while administering justice in BC’s vast frontier made it difficult for the High Judge do so in a timely and effective manner. In his view, an organization whereby lawyers could be self-regulating was clearly necessary.
On July 15, 1869, Crease assembled 13 members of the legal profession in the colony. Together, they founded the Law Society of British Columbia, the objectives of which were: creation of a law library; publication of legal decisions; regulation of call to the Bar and admission to rolls; and protection of the interests of the legal profession. Member dues for the year would be $10, to help pay for the library and the publications it housed.
The province formally incorporated the Law Society in 1884.
Public interest paramount
Protecting the public interest has always been at the heart of the society’s work, a mandate that was recognized as early as 1898 in Re Blake 6 BCR 282:
Looking at the object of the [Legal Profession] Act it is obvious that it is a remedial statute intended to protect clients from being plundered by a privileged class — hence to protect the public and not the solicitor.
While not the most flattering characterization of the legal profession, it stands as powerful evidence that the public interest is paramount in the Law Society’s work.
As the society has grown, its commitment to the public interest has remained strong. The society has spearheaded a number of initiatives to improve public information and access to law and the legal profession, including most recently:
ongoing investment in BC’s courthouse libraries;
educating the public about the Law Society and its work through a speaking tour;
promoting topics for discussion, such as access to justice issues, etc., for public forums;
working to ensure free access to legislation online, in partnership with the Ministry of the Attorney General and other legal organizations.
The Law Society today
Over the past 125 years, the Law Society’s scope has expanded to provide a range of services for members and the public. Today, the Law Society is responsible for:
- determining the standards for admission to the legal profession;
- overseeing the education of articled students;
- setting ethical standards for all lawyers;
- setting practice standards of competency;
- providing liability insurance for lawyers and trust protection coverage for the public;
- investigating allegations of lawyer misconduct, resolving complaints and taking disciplinary action where necessary.
The Law Society will continue to be a leader in developing new initiatives, standards and resources to support the legal profession and protect the public interest in the administration of justice.
Order your commemorative booklet
Produced in celebration of the Law Society’s 125th anniversary, this booklet contains historical information about the society, a timeline of BC legal history and practical tips about finding and working with a lawyer.
Aimed at members of the public with little to no knowledge of law and the legal profession, this booklet is available for distribution by law firms to their clients and the general public.
To request copies, contact Robin Pollak, Communications Assistant, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Quantities are limited.