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Benchers finally approve pay plan

|Written By Kirsten McMahon - Law Times

LawSociety of Upper Canada benchers voted last month to pay themselves for thefirst time in the society's long history.

In a March referendum, 58 per cent of lawyers voted in favour of the proposal for bencher remuneration. Under the plan, benchers would not be paid for the first 26 days of law society-related work in each calendar year and would be paid at a rate of $500 a day or $300 per half day after that.

The plan, presented by the finance and audit committee, was passed by a vote of 25-7, except for a contentious section that deals with the possibility of double-dipping. Section G of the scheme proposed that a bencher appointed to an external organization who is paid by that body will not be eligible for remuneration by the law society for the time spent and that time spent on external business will not count toward the 26-day deductible.

The debate started after there were rumours that benchers who sit on LawPro's board of directors earn $30,000 a year. Kim Carpenter-Gunn, chairwoman of LawPro, addressed the issue, stating that as of April 2005, the benchers serving LawPro are paid an average of only $18,000 a year.

Currently, six benchers sit on LawPro's board (Carpenter-Gunn, Constance Backhouse, Abdul Chahbar, Vern Krishna, Laurie Pawlitza, and Gerald Swaye). Discussion quickly turned to whether or not there should be a two-tiered system of bencher remuneration.

Bencher Gavin MacKenzie suggested an alternative wording of section G that would state that benchers will not accept money from outside organizations at all.

"It was suggested by a motion that Mr. MacKenzie brought that it creates two tiers of benchers. It certainly does," said Bencher Judith Potter. "Who, in fact, will be appointed to that board is a huge issue. Why, in fact, that was done without bringing the issue to this body and having us debate it and deal with it before it was implemented, I think it's pretty nervy that it was implemented which is a policy shift for us and we have no say in it and no knowledge of it.

"I am adamantly opposed to it. I think when we did bencher remuneration, it was to treat all benchers on an equal basis and I would support that that continue."

Thunder Bay, Ont.'s Ross Murray agreed, saying it was a mistake that Convocation wasn't involved in LawPro's decision to pay benchers on the board.

"Convocation should have been involved in that decision. I don't believe in the two-tier bencher remuneration system," he said. "I am not even in favour of bencher remuneration, although it's not a simple statement because I voted in favour back in, I think, ྛ or ྜྷ, I don't remember which, but I did not vote in favour on the last vote."

Carpenter-Gunn, Krishna, and Clayton Ruby all said that while it's an important debate to have, Convocation can't tell another governing board what to do, even if the LSUC is a shareholder.

"LawPro is an independent entity and they have the right to pass the bylaw that they did and you can't have the law society tampering in our business. You just can't have it," said Carpenter-Gunn.

Bencher Carole Curtis of Toronto said the issue isn't confusing at all. Convocation wouldn't be telling LawPro what to do, it would be telling the benchers what they can or can't accept.

"This motion is not making any effort to deal with another body at all. So, let's not get confused on this. . . ." she said.

"$18,000 is a lot of money to everybody. There is no one who wouldn't want an appointment that would result in that level of remuneration — no one."

Robert Topp of Sudbury, Ont., said he is so opposed that he will not accept a nickel from the law society in regards to bencher remuneration, no matter how much time he puts in.

"Having said that, the optics of what's happened here stink. We've gone from a proposal where we set out to the profession that a bencher would get X dollars and it would be across the board based on the time and sacrifice they made. And now we have a second class of benchers that has not been approved by the profession and has not been approved by Convocation who are going to get whatever. It doesn't matter to me whether it's $2 or $18,000."

Bencher Julian Porter brought a motion to omit section G entirely, and to debate it at November's Convocation. Pawlitza supported that motion and said it's a good idea to look into the time commitments involved in all of the outside organizations benchers are involved in.

"First of all, although everyone has been speaking about LawPro at length, there are a number of other organizations, and I think it would be very helpful before there is a decision made with respect to this, to know what other organizations and boards benchers are sitting on, what their time commitments are, and what the remuneration of those boards are," she said. "And if the remuneration of those boards is consistent with the area in which they are involved, then that may well be something that this room should consider."

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