Forum reminds legal community, public to safeguard the rule of law

Over 300 people attended the Law Society’s third public forum, Lawyers Without Rights, on Thursday, November 22 at Simon Fraser University, Harbour Centre, in downtown Vancouver.

The free public forum, presented by the Law Society in partnership with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, examined what happened to German-Jewish lawyers in Nazi Germany, what is happening around the world today in places where individual rights and freedoms are threatened by political interference and why it is important for Canadians to protect legal independence.

  photo: Lawyers Without Rights
  Top photo, left to right, moderator Duncan McCue and panellists Prof. Stephen Toope, Joel Levi, Dr. Norbert Westenberger and Leo Adler.
  photo: Lawyers Without Rights
  Above, left to right: Dr. Westenberger, Law Society CEO Tim McGee and Vancouver Bencher Art Vertlieb, QC.
  photo: Lawyers Without Rights
  A member of the audience.
  photo: Lawyers Without Rights
  The Y’teev ensemble provided the music at the reception following the forum.

“The rule of law is the cornerstone of any democratic nation,” said Law Society president Anna Fung, QC, in her opening remarks. “But we must not forget that freedom is fragile. Tonight we will remember what happened in Germany when lawyers, judges and citizens failed to stand up and protect the sanctity of the courts and legal profession.”

Fung also noted that our history as Canadians includes a shameful history of discrimination, intolerance and political interference that runs counter to basic individual rights and freedoms. She noted that Chinese Canadians and Aboriginal people were excluded from practising law in British Columbia until the middle of the 20th century.

CBC reporter Duncan McCue, who moderated the forum, echoed Fung’s comments, noting how Canadian law was used to prevent Aboriginal people from accessing lawyers and pursuing Aboriginal rights and title. In the 1920s First Nations Chiefs wanted to hire lawyers to go to court and get the land question resolved, he said. The government responded by amending the Indian Act to make it illegal for Chiefs to use band funds to hire a lawyer, or to raise funds to hire a lawyer. “Those laws were on the books until 1951, and it’s no question that their effects resonate here today in BC.”

Leo Adler, director of national affairs for Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and a Toronto criminal lawyer, described how the demise of the rule of law, including the passing of a series of laws to prevent thousands of German-Jewish lawyers from practising, set the stage for the Holocaust. “It started with the lawyers and the laws that allowed the Holocaust to occur.”

Dr. Norbert Westenberger, vice-president of the German Federal Bar since 1995 and Joel Levi, founder of Lawyers Without Rights and the 2007 Israel Bar Association distinguished lawyer of the year, offered powerful insight on the experience of thousands of German-Jewish lawyers who lost their profession, and for many, their lives.

Westenberger and Levi echoed Adler’s commentary on how the Holocaust occurred within a legal framework designed in the image of a dictator. “Immediately after the Nazis came to power they dissolved all democratic rules and imposed their own rules of dictatorship,” said Westenberger. “The Holocaust was not a lawless barbarism; on the contrary it was a ‘lawful’ barbarism.”

Professor Stephen Toope, president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia, picked up on comments made earlier in the evening by Fung and McCue about the alarming attack on the rule of law unfolding in Pakistan. “What can we make of a country in which the law and all of its representatives can be defied, jailed, and tortured in some cases? When the legal profession is put under threat, society as a whole is threatened too.”

Victoria roundtable  
The Lawyers Without Rights exhibit opened at the University of Victoria on November 28 and ran through to December 9, with a public roundtable discussion on November 29.  

Toope said that attacks on the rule of law are not historical problems; they are happening around the world today, noting the demise of legal independence in Zimbabwe, and human rights abuses in countries such as Russia, China, India and Sri Lanka. “In democratic societies like our own, with a long tradition of laws that protect our rights and freedoms, it becomes only too easy to take the rule of law for granted. But we are reminded daily by current events that we ignore the laws’ well-being at our peril.”

Since its inception, the Lawyers Without Rights exhibit has been presented around Europe, Israel, the US and more recently Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. The BC leg of Lawyers Without Rights featured a three-week exhibit at SFU Harbour Centre (November 1 to 25) and a two-week exhibit at the University of Victoria (November 28 to December 9) with a round-table discussion on November 29.

“As lawyers, we are entrusted with protecting individual rights,” said Fung. “But it is the responsibility of all citizens to protect the legal foundation that supports our rights and freedoms as Canadians.”

The Law Society would like to acknowledge and thank CBC, the Law Foundation of BC and the Vancouver Bar Association for their generous support of the Lawyers Without Rights exhibit and public forum.