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Discrimination cases spike

|Written By Helen Burnett-Nichols

Discrimination and harassment complaints against lawyers - including a number of employment-related grievances from women in the profession - jumped significantly this year in what may be a sign of workplace stress caused by the recession.

Cynthia Petersen says the rise in complaints may be a result of greater promotion of the program.

In her latest biannual report to the Law Society of Upper Canada, discrimination and harassment counsel Cynthia Petersen tallied 34 complaints of discrimination or harassment against lawyers or paralegals from January until the end of June. That number is up substantially from the previous six-month period.

Thirty-three of the cases were against lawyers, while one was against a paralegal. Of those involving lawyers, 16 came from members of the public, 16 from members of the bar, and one from a paralegal.

Sandy Welsh, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, says that given the dates of the statistics, it’s possible the rise is due to job stress related to the recession.

Welsh, whose research focuses on harassment and equity issues, adds that in a downturn, pregnancy-related discrimination complaints also tend to increase.

Petersen, however, tells Law Times that there’s no study or survey on the cause of the increase but says one of the reasons may simply be efforts to promote the discrimination and harassment counsel program.

“It may be a good thing. It may not mean that there’s any increase in misconduct by lawyers; it might just mean that people who do think that they’ve been victimized are aware of what their options are and are feeling empowered to take steps to address them,” she says.

People may also be more aware of their rights as a result of recent media discussion about human rights and a reformed complaints process in Ontario, she adds.

The law society provides its discrimination and harassment counsel service for free to the public, lawyers, and paralegals through a program that’s been in place for more than 10 years.

The report notes the majority of complaints brought forward by lawyers were from women, most of them dealing with employment. The complaints touched on issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender, pregnancy, disability, family status, and race.

According to the report, four women lawyers complained about sexual harassment or sexual assault by male counterparts, including one who said she was the victim of “lewd jokes, sexist remarks, sexual comments, and sexual advances” by a male co-worker.

Three women lawyers reported discrimination based on pregnancy. The cases included the mother of an infant who said her employer was failing to accommodate her child-care and breastfeeding needs.

Another lawyer claimed discrimination based on her race and gender had harmed her career-advancement prospects. In addition, five women clients said they suffered sexual harassment by male lawyers.

Complaint numbers have fluctuated in recent years, says Petersen, who notes there was a peak in 2004 with 78 cases. Then they started declining, with as few as 35 in 2007. But last year, they began to go up again.

April, in fact, was the busiest month ever for the program with 24 complaints, something Petersen says was surprising.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s just a blip or whether we’re going to now see an increasing trend over the next few years of complaints rising,” she says.

Like Welsh, law society Bencher Avvy Go says the statistics may be a reflection of the times. “From my own work, I find in general [that] in bad economic times, you tend to see more complaints, whether it’s employment related or whether it’s access to other kinds of services.”

Still, the increase could be due either to people being more willing to come forward or to an actual rise in incidents.

“I think both are possible,” says Go, a member of Convocation’s equity and aboriginal issues committee.

“If it’s an issue of an increasing number of actual incidents overall, then we need to figure out why that is the case and think of how we could better respond to it,” she adds.

Similarly, Ontario Bar Association vice president Lee Akazaki says that in some ways, the report is a success for the law society.

“In that respect, if these people are emboldened to report their complaints or their problems where they may not have done so before, then it’s got to be seen . . . to be a positive development that these issues are being raised and that they’re being processed and taken seriously.”

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