Disclosure and Privacy Task Force winds up after five years and more than 100 recommendations

The Disclosure and Privacy Task Force has now completed its five-year long review of the Law Society’s operations and the Benchers have approved more than 100 recommendations designed to ensure openness and transparency in the Society’s regulatory programs.

Established in 2001, the Task Force’s work will ensure that the Law Society remains at the forefront of disclosure and privacy policy among self-regulating professions.

Recommendations adopted over the past five years include rule changes allowing disclosure of discipline decision on the Society’s website, guidelines governing the naming of witnesses in hearing reports, and new rules requiring publication of hearing decisions and restricting anonymous publication. Additional changes allow the Law Society to disclose more information about complaints and conduct reviews and to post information about restrictions on a lawyer’s practice on the website.

At one time the Law Society of BC, like most self-regulating professions, conducted most of its regulatory activities behind closed doors. Beginning in the 1970s, however, governments and the public began to take greater interest in the affairs of self-regulating professions and began demanding more transparency from these organizations.

As a result of these societal pressures, many changes occurred over the next two decades. For example, the Law Society opened its discipline hearings to the public in 1981 and its credentials hearings in 1999. The provincial government also passed freedom of information legislation, which requires the Law Society to protect personal privacy, while at the same time giving the public access to previously confidential Law Society records. Another significant legislative change gave the Ombudsman authority to review the Law Society’s disciplinary and other procedures.

As these changes were forcing the once private world of the Law Society into the open, a new means of communicating with the public was growing and by the late 1990s the internet was, perhaps, our most important method of disseminating information.

Law Society rules, regulations and policies, however, did not keep pace with these changes, and there were many anomalies. For example, the Law Society disclosed the dates of discipline hearings on its website, but not the reasons for the hearings. The public knew a lawyer was in trouble but didn’t know how serious the charges were. Another anomaly involved Law Society Rules that made discipline hearings open to the public and required summaries of disciplinary decisions to be distributed to the membership, but remained largely silent about distribution to the media or the public.

These anomalies, along with the growth in electronic communications and public demand for information, meant that the Law Society found itself regularly faced with questions of disclosure and privacy. There was, however, no centralized means of dealing with these questions and most issues were resolved on an ad hoc basis by the department in which the issues arose.

To deal with these problems, the Law Society, in January 2001, established a cross-departmental staff group to review existing disclosure rules and policies and to make recommendations for necessary changes. As the staff group worked through various issues, it quickly became apparent that Bencher input was required. Consequently, in July 2001, the Benchers created the Task Force on Disclosure and Privacy giving it a broad mandate to make recommendations for balancing the Law Society’s obligation to be open and transparent against the requirements of the law, considerations of privacy and the efficacy of the Society’s duties under the Legal Profession Act.

The Task Force and staff group included Benchers, Lay Benchers, lawyers and staff members with expertise in public policy, communications, media relations, professional regulation and corporate governance.

Members of the Task Force have included: Peter Keighley, QC (Chair July 2001 to February 2004), John Hunter, QC (Chair February 2004 to conclusion of the Task Force), June Preston (Lay Bencher), Maureen Baird and Jean Whittow, QC.

Over the past five years, the Task Force made 115 recommendations to the Benchers. These recommendations were all designed to ensure the Law Society operates with the level of openness and transparency necessary to maintain public confidence in our regulatory system. The Task Force based its recommendations on an analysis of five factors: the public interest, the profession’s interest, the impact of the recommendations on Law Society operations, the interests of individual lawyers involved in the regulatory process and the interests of any third parties who might be affected by the recommendations.

Rule amendments have previously been distributed to the profession.