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Struggling Ontario lawyers on CBA agenda

|Written By Robert Todd

QUEBEC CITY - Newly minted Canadian Bar Association president Guy Joubert says he will work throughout the year to help struggling Ontario lawyers who are practising in a tough financial climate.

Canadian Bar Association President Guy Joubert addresses those gathered for the annual meeting.

“There are certainly members in Ontario that have been exposed to the economic downturn,” Joubert tells Law Times in an interview from Quebec City, where the CBA recently held its annual conference.

“Our association will support the local branch, the Ontario Bar Association, in their initiatives on that front,” said Joubert, speaking the day after the first meeting of the association’s new board of directors. He says adding to the group’s membership is also a priority in the year ahead, as is access to justice in smaller, rural areas.

The CBA’s annual conference brought in at least 1,200 attendees, says Joubert in offering a preliminary estimate. On top of the usual continuing legal education programs and social gatherings, the conference provided a captive audience for many key public figures to voice their thoughts on important issues facing Canada’s legal community, and the country in general.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart addressed the CBA council, using the forum to give her views on how privacy concerns affect lawyers. She said law offices must stop the practice of performing credit checks without clients’ permission to verify their ability to pay legal bills. And she noted that law offices also must be prudent in not uploading to the web documents that include the names, addresses, and SIN numbers of clients.

Stoddart said that her office also will soon be tacking the issue of privacy concerns related to legal research.

“I am not convinced that the broad public needs to know the names of individuals involved or requires access to intimate personal details through decisions posted widely on the internet,” she said.

“When these cases were accessible only in specialized legal texts, or search engines accessible to legal professionals only, or copies could be picked up by making a trip to the basement records room of a court or tribunal, the concept of practical obscurity always operated in favour of privacy protection and the need-to-know principle.

 “The story is now different when decisions containing highly sensitive personal information are made available to anyone with an internet connection,” she said, noting that, in her view, the “educational value” of the decisions can be maintained while replacing names with initials. (Her speech is at www.privcom.gc.ca/speech/2008/sp-d_080817_e.asp)

Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin presented to the council a review of the Supreme Court’s activity in 2008, calling it “a busy year, in which the court has seen many changes.”

Responding to “alarmist reporting” of a reduction in appeals heard in 2007, McLachlin announced that appeals are “up significantly” in 2008, with the court on pace to hear 88, versus the 53 appeals it heard last year.

McLachlin referred to the top court’s June hearing of the BCE Inc. case as an example of how “our court system can respond to the needs of litigants for efficient resolution of disputes.” The case saw the cour’ts average appeal length of 18 months from filing to the rendering of a decision compressed into one month.

Meanwhile, federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson used his address to the conference to unveil renewed funding for the government’s Aboriginal Justice Strategy. Nicholson said the government is upping its investment in the project, which sees provinces and the feds share costs to give money for community-based justice programs, by $40 million to $85 million by 2012.

He also fielded questions from lawyers on everything from legal aid spending to the country’s policy on citizens facing capital punishment abroad. Nicholson said he continually presses Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to up the money given to provinces through the Canadian Health and Social Transfer, which they can then use to direct more resources to legal aid.

But Iroquois Falls lawyer Susan McGrath, who also is a Law Society of Upper Canada bencher, told Nicholson governments continually shift responsibility on the issue, and nothing gets done.

“Every day that passes, people are losing their children, people are being evicted, people are being put out on the street because they are wrongly cut off disability benefits,” she said.

Nicholson addressed the issue of judicial appointments, and specifically the controversy surrounding a panel of MPs set up to vet candidates to replace retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache.

Squabbling within the committee has left some wondering if the top court will be at full strength for its busy fall schedule.

“We’re making an attempt to get members of Parliament involved,” said Nicholson at a press conference. “I think this is a step in the right direction. The prime minister can just make the decision, of course, but we’ve set up the panel. There are three members of the opposition out of five - they hold a majority of it. What I will not do, I will not start giving a veto over government members to either the Bloc or the NDP,” he said, referring to criticism from those political parties over Conservative members named to the committee.

“We will choose our own members, thank you,” said Nicholson.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who addressed the conference, urged the government against changing the process of appointing federal judges.

He said he’s unaware of a single judge he was involved in the appointment of over 30 years in politics that turned into a “bad apple.”

But he joked that he was always reluctant to accept nominations from major law firms, because those names were of people the firms wanted to get rid of.

“We have a system that works,” said Chrétien. “Replacing it will perhaps not be that good.”

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, meanwhile, said a truth and reconciliation commission led by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Harry LaForme will play a key role in helping Canadians grasp a dark period in the country’s history.

“The commission will undertake the important work of looking back at our shared history and writing about an era that has been missing from our history books for too long,” Phil Fontaine said in a speech at the conference, in reference to the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Fontaine also urged law firms to take on aboriginal articling students and associates, and said law schools should add courses covering aboriginal law.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, some 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools. Fontaine said the schools were “designed to eradicate any sense of Indianness in this country.”

It’s up to LaForme, the first aboriginal person named to a Canadian appellate court, said Fontaine, “to ensure that people will actually come forward to participate in the truth and reconciliation commission.”

Overall, Joubert says the conference ran smoothly from top to bottom.

“We had a number of very successful continuing legal education programs, and our various speakers were quite inspirational,” he says, singling out an address by acclaimed U.S. author and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou as “formidable.”

The Franco-Manitoban lawyer from Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP adds, “There were a number of important resolutions that were studied and passed on the business side of the association, and on the education side, there were some very good education programs. The local organizers did a very good job.”

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