Lay Benchers: Twenty years of bringing the public to the Bencher table
Twenty years ago last month, the Legal Profession Act and accompanying Law Society Rules came into force, paving the way for the appointment of non-lawyers as Lay Benchers of the Law Society.
"Agreeing to government appointment of non-lawyers to the Bencher table was a big step for the Benchers and lawyers of the day," recalled the society's General Counsel Jeff Hoskins. "There was spirited debate spanning several years on whether that was a step toward broadening the perspective brought to the profession's deliberations, or a step toward undermining the Law Society's capacity for self-governance and independence from government."
|While their introduction brought about much spirited debate, Lay Benchers are now widely recognized as valuable and important participants in Law Society governance. Top: Benchers and Lay Benchers, 1989. Bottom: Benchers, Lay Benchers and CEO, 2007.||
The minutes of a Special Benchers Meeting held on September 13 and 14, 1980 show the urgency and duration of that debate:
It was agreed that this matter should not be delegated to the special committee but because of its urgency should be discussed and decided by the Benchers.
A lengthy discussion then followed as to the necessity of appointing Lay Benchers; their contribution to the deliberations of Benchers; their effect on the independence of the profession; their use on the Law Foundation, the Legal Services Commission, on the Governing Bodies in Manitoba and Ontario; the number which should be appointed; who should appoint them; the degree of their involvement; and whether they should be paid and by whom.
After deliberations spread over the two days, the Benchers approved a key motion leading to provision for the appointment of Lay Benchers in the legislation that came into force almost eight years later. The 1987 Act called for the appointment of up to three non-lawyers to sit as Benchers for two-year terms. Jack Webster, a well-known radio and television broadcaster, was one of the original appointments; as was Anne Clarke, then the Mayor of Vernon, along with Dr. Anne Autor, a pathologist and UBC professor.
By the early 1990's the value of public participation in Law Society governance was widely recognized outside the society and within, both as a matter of perception and as a matter of actual contribution. As then Provincial Ombudsman Stephen Owen said in his 1991 report to the Legislature:
Professional associations should carefully consider the value of encouraging a significant lay membership on their governing councils. This can reduce public suspicion that the regulatory organization is self-serving and can also improve the quality of the regulatory decisions by bringing a broader perspective to the important deliberations of the profession. To achieve this, lay members should truly be representative of broader opinion and not simply pseudo or would-be members of the profession.
The Law Society's Lay Representation Committee agreed with the Ombudsman's assessment and went further in their 1993 report to the Benchers:
The participation of Lay Benchers has diminished the public perception of the Law Society as a closed, self-serving guild. Benchers from outside the profession have also brought with them a valuable alternative perspective to the Benchers' table, to many of the standing committees, special committees and subcommittees and to discipline and credentials panels. We believe the quality of decision-making has been improved by their participation at all those levels.
The debate shifted from "whether" to "how much" public participation there should be in Bencher ranks. The Lay Representation Committee report went on to recommend that Lay Bencher ranks be doubled to six; the 1998 Legal Profession Act brought that change to pass.
Twenty-four Lay Benchers — including 13 women — have been appointed by the provincial government since 1988, together providing over 77 years of service to the Law Society. That service has included the contribution of broad expertise and sound judgment to Bencher decision-making and the enhancement of accountability and transparency in Bencher governance.
Lay Benchers of the Law Society, 1988-2008
Dr. Anne Autor
Dr. Setty Pendakur
Dr. Maelor Vallance
Legacy of the Legal Profession Act
The Benchers' Bulletin asked Law Society General Counsel Jeff Hoskins to reflect on the legacy of theLegal Profession Act, 1987.
"Three lasting achievements of the 1987 Act and Rules come to mind for me," Hoskins said. "First, it marked the first time that our governing legislation spelled out the Law Society's paramount duty to uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice. Second, it paved the way for inclusion of non-lawyers at the Bencher table and confirmed their right to serve on Bencher committees and discipline panels. And third, the new Rules called for the creation of a new Complainants' Review Committee, to which a dissatisfied complainant could appeal for review of a Law Society staff decision that no further action be taken on a complaint."
All three features were carried forward in the BC legal profession's current governing statute — the Legal Profession Act of 1998 — and are now embedded in the Law Society's governance and discipline procedures.