Continuing professional development and new client identification
John J.L. Hunter, QC
This will be my last column in the Benchers' Bulletin before my term as President ends on December 31. It has been an honour to serve as President of our Law Society. My year has confirmed my belief, after more than 30 years of practice and seven years as a Bencher, that our profession remains strong, independent, ethical and collegial. We can be proud of what we have accomplished in service to the citizens of British Columbia, but of course we can always do better.
The Law Society has two new initiatives that I want to discuss briefly with you. While superficially unrelated, they both originate in our effort to maintain the independence of the Bar by ensuring that we meet the highest standards of professional conduct and self-regulation.
The first initiative is Continuing Professional Development. Yes, it has now arrived. As of New Year's Day, it will be mandatory for the first time for lawyers to spend tangible time on professional development after they've been called to the Bar. This is long overdue. The object of the program is to get lawyers thinking about what they could do to keep up and improve professionally and to carry those thoughts into action. The program should also serve the secondary purpose of demonstrating to the public that we are making continuous efforts to improve the quality of the service we provide.
The CPD requirement can be met in many ways. It should not be onerous, but it will prove to be onerous if everyone waits until the last minute to think about what they could do to move forward professionally. I urge you to develop a plan for achieving this modest requirement before you start getting reminders to do so from the Law Society.
The second initiative, which begins December 31, 2008, is the new client identification and verification requirement. These rules require lawyers to take reasonable steps to establish the identity of their clients and, where financial transactions are involved, to verify their clients' identity. This requirement has happened relatively quickly and I would urge those of you who manage your firms to take steps now to adjust your file opening procedures to address these identification and verification requirements.
We are adopting these rules in conjunction with the other provincial law societies to minimize the possibility that lawyers will unwittingly participate in the criminal activities of their clients, and also to demonstrate to the federal government that we are able to regulate this increasingly important area ourselves — thereby avoiding unwanted governmental oversight.
In my view, these initiatives relate to our independence because both meet a best practices standard for self-regulation. They should contribute to the protection of the public, which is the touchstone of our independence.
An issue that remains outstanding as this year comes to a close is the continuing effort to improve access to the courts for the citizens of British Columbia. As you are all aware, the Civil Justice Reform Task Force, established at the initiative of the Law Society, has proposed a draft set of civil rules of practice that would significantly change the way civil disputes are litigated in this province.
The Benchers have consistently taken the view that changes must be made to our civil justice system to improve access to it. Members of our community must be able to access the courts in an efficient and cost-effective manner if we are to meet the critical goal of a society governed by the rule of law.
My own view is that the question to be addressed is how we can most effectively provide a system of civil justice that allows members of our community to resolve their disputes on the merits before an independent judiciary with the assistance of an independent Bar. The issue appears to be how we can reduce system costs without sacrificing the court's ability to adjudicate fairly on the basis of legal principle.
Whether the proposed rules achieve this objective is less clear. Many of our members do not think so. Others are prepared to give them a try. The Benchers are committed to working with all stakeholders to improve access. If the proposed rules can be improved, we all owe a duty to our profession and to the public we serve to try to make that happen.
Finally, may I say a few words about the last, major duty of my term — to host the annual Bench & Bar dinner in Vancouver on November 19. This was a wonderful evening. The turnout of both Bench and Bar was very high, no doubt influenced by the popularity of and respect for the two members of our Bar who were honoured that night. I had the great pleasure of presenting John McAlpine with the Law Society Award for 2008. The Law Society Award was established to honour the lifetime contribution of the truly exceptional in our profession, measured by the criteria of integrity, professional achievements, service and reform. John was the 11th member of our profession to be thus honoured since the award was established more than 20 years ago. He is a very worthy recipient. I then had the pleasure of watching my former partner Marvin Storrow receive the Canadian Bar Association's prestigious Georges A. Goyer Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to our profession.
Both gave powerful speeches in accepting their awards but I would like to close my column by referring to John's speech, which was a call to arms for the profession to assist those who need our services but are unable to pay for them. Urging better funded legal aid, supplemented by pro bono work, John challenged us all to do a better job in helping those who need our help. This challenge is in the highest tradition of our Bar. It is even more pressing now, as the impact of the economic downturn will make it even more difficult for the members of our community to obtain the legal services they need. John has thrown down the gauntlet to us all to do a better job to live up to the ideals which his career exemplified. I am confident we will not let him down.
My successor, Gordon Turriff, QC, is waiting in the wings. I know he will do an excellent job on your behalf. Thank you once again for allowing me to represent you in this great profession of ours.