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Funding request sparks spending debate

|Written By Kirsten McMahon

Benchers of the Law Society of Upper Canada voted to approve a $45,000 survey on the impact of law school tuition increases on newly called lawyers -- but not without igniting a hot debate on whether the law society is "spending money like it''s going out of style."

Gerald Swaye says benchers need to start

During May Convocation, Bencher Paul Copeland presented a proposal for a survey that would probe the licensing process of students and lawyers called to the bar in 2004 and 2005. The survey will study:

-    the debt load of law school students;

-    the effectiveness of bursaries, financial support programs, and back-end debt relief programs;

-    whether the increase in tuition fees has an impact on students' career choices; and

-    strategies to alleviate the burden of increasing tuition fees.

Copeland, as vice-chairman of the equity and aboriginal issues committee, asked for Convocation's approval of the survey along with $45,000 from the law society's contingency fund. Discussion quickly turned to Convocation's recent spending.

Bencher Robert Topp said he meant no disrespect to the committee or to the finance committee, but said the law society is getting into a budgetary problem and it's reaching a point where it's taxing the profession.

"I'm not so sure that this is on the top 10 list of lawyers in the province, and on that basis, and the basis that we have to stop this wild spending, I'm opposed to this. It's simply important that at least somebody put on the record the concerns that many other members of Convocation have expressed to me about how we're spending money."

Hamilton, Ont.-based Bencher Gerald Swaye said he wants to personally see what's come out of all of the recent task forces to determine what actions were taken and the cost-benefit ratio.

"I note that we mention we have a budget of $1.2 million in the contingency account, but we used to have $1.2 million from the contingency account because every other week and every other month, people are going into that account for various things in order to enhance or to extend various committees.

"We've got to be very, very careful as to when we set up task forces we're not talking $10,000. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars."

According to law society data, the contingency fund had $1.2 million budgeted for 2006, but $465,000 of that has been committed to various task forces and working groups, including this most recent initiative.

As well, there are unpredictable demands on financial resources this year coming from the implementation of paralegal regulation and bencher remuneration in excess of the provision of $300,000.

"I think we've got to be very, very careful," Swaye said. "I'm not speaking for or against the proposal on the table, because this may turn out to be something very important, but I wanted to start sensitizing ourselves to we just can't keep spending money holus-bolus because it's a good thing to do and some committee wants to do it.

"So unless it goes to our core function of regulation in the public interest, sometimes we have to say no, not this year. Let's do it some other time."

Toronto Bencher Carole Curtis said she was amazed that the report was so poorly understood and that financial restraints on newly called lawyers is the law society's problem.

"Some of things that we learned in the sole practitioners and small firm task force is that there are real problems in smaller communities in Ontario. Articling students aren't going there, and the lawyers who are there are baby boomers and older, and they are going to be leaving within the next decade, and we need to get more lawyers out there because that's who serves individuals. . . .

"When they graduate, what do they do? What do they do in terms of what location they practice in? If the people who are going to law school have changed, does that change what location they practice in? Does it change the firm size they choose? Does it change, most importantly to me, does it change their area of practice they choose?"

Convocation voted 24-13 to approve the funding of the survey, but immediately following that vote, the Heritage Commit-tee was looking for $5,185 from the contingency fund and almost $75,000 to be budgeted in 2007 for the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the first Convocation in Osgoode Hall.

This sparked even more debate about the law society's spending.

Law society CEO Malcolm Heins pointed out that the law society spent $400,000 in 1997 celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation of the law society. He also said $35,000 was given to the Osgoode Society for publishing a book that also celebrates Osgoode Hall, and said about 400 copies of the book are still sitting in the basement.

"I think the issue this poses for me as your chief executive officer, and the question I think squarely ought to be put to Convocation, is: do you want to celebrate the 175th anniversary? Do you want to acknowledge it, one? Two, if you do, what do you think is an appropriate expenditure with respect to this event? So set yourselves some guidelines."

The $5,185 in 2006 would cover special lapel pins, banners, postcards, and letterhead marking the anniversary, which Convocation approved.

However, the $75,000 the heritage committee wants budgeted for 2007 to cover the costs of a one-day legal history symposium didn't go through the finance committee for approval. It will now have to go through the proper budget process and be voted on in October by Convocation.

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