Some lawyers say changing the name of the Law Society of Upper Canada is just a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in order to address barriers to access to justice.
The law society’s governing body, Convocation, voted to discard “Upper Canada” from the regulator’s name at its September meeting. Benchers will consider a new name in November.
Proponents of changing the law society’s name say it was an important step in a strategy to improve access to justice. But some lawyers say the debate around the topic singles out a cosmetic issue and ultimately distracts from harder conversations about how legal services are delivered.
“The choice of such a hot-button issue, which will attract a great deal of attention but won’t actually have I would think that much of an impact at the end of the day, risks being a distraction from the more important and pressing access-to-justice challenges that we as Ontario lawyers ought to be concerned about,” says Adam Goldenberg, a lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
Goldenberg says changing the name would not preclude other changes, but he does not think it will have a broad sweeping impact that some have suggested. He adds that this conversation will polarize the profession while at the same time not “move the needle” dramatically.
LSUC Treasurer Paul Schabas convened the law society’s Strategic Communications Steering Group in February to look at how the law society can better connect with the public.
Julian Falconer, chairman of the steering group, says a name change in and of itself will not be a huge game changer, but it is an important first step.
“It is one piece of a larger strategy that we are studying and proposing to unfold over time in the short to mid term, not down the road. It’s a piece, but it’s an important piece,” he says.
Falconer declined to share other future parts of the communications strategy on which the steering group is working, saying they will have to come to Convocation.
Goldenberg says initiatives such as buying advertisements on subway cars could go a long way to making the public aware of what the law society is.
Through its research, the steering group found that only seven per cent of Ontarians are familiar with the Law Society of Upper Canada.
The law society’s name dates back to 1797 when Upper Canada was a province of a British colony.
The law society held on to the name even when Upper Canada was no longer a political entity after 1841.
The debate at the September meeting was not the first time Convocation was considering a name change. In 1993, Convocation rejected a motion to change the law society’s name.
In 2012, a motion at the LSUC annual general meeting asking Convocation to consider a name change was voted down.
Proponents of the change have also said the “Upper Canada” label is confusing to Ontarians and that it does not define the geographic area it is responsible for anymore. They say changing the name would make it more consistent with those of law societies in other provinces and territories.
The “Upper Canada” name has also been described as archaic, colonial, outdated and a barrier to access to justice.
Proponents also say that the name points back to a period of colonial history when unfair treaties were struck with indigenous communities.
Schabas has been vocal in his support of changing the law society’s name.
“We need to make changes to reflect who we are today and not who we were 200 years ago,” he told Convocation.
Opponents of changing the name, however, say 200 years of history should not simply be cast aside and that the name should be celebrated and remembered. Some opponents also note that the law society had no part in negotiating the unfair treaties that were hashed out between indigenous peoples and the government of the time.
Others say changing the name would be a waste of time and money. The law society has set aside $150,000 in 2018 to implement the name change, as anything that has the old name on it, from signs to business cards, will need to be replaced.
Some benchers opposed the motion as they felt the province would give the false impression that the province has made significant progress in its reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
“The problem is not in the name but in inaction,” said Bencher Rocco Galati. Convocation was originally set to vote on whether to adopt the Law Society of Ontario as its new name, but an amendment was made so that the motion would discard “Upper Canada” and delay a vote on a new name until November. Some questioned whether “Ontario” is any less colonial than “Upper Canada.”
Falconer says the profession should be careful not to over-politicize the issue, but he adds that it’s also difficult to identify any part of the Canadian political structure without being able to point to flaws and deficiencies in how those structures have treated indigenous peoples.
“The name Ontario is not without its baggage, but that hardly means we should stay mired in an over 200-year-old set of baggage because of that,” he says. “You would in essence paralyze progress if you simply spent all of your time pointing to the minefields ahead and, therefore, remain afraid to progress. We have to move forward.”
Bencher William McDowell proposed the amendment after saying that there was not enough data to know how the public would receive the new name or how it would enhance public comprehension of the law society.
A number of benchers said that not enough consultation had been done about the name change, but Falconer said the steering group conducted research and consultations.
Some called on Convocation to hold a referendum on a possible name change, but that idea did not garner much support among benchers.
Ultimately, Convocation approved the amended motion to discard “Upper Canada” and to vote on a new name once the steering group gets more information on how the “Law Society of Ontario” would be received by the public.
The Law Society of Upper Canada will continue to be the regulator’s legal name until the provincial legislature amends the Law Society Act to make the change.
What Twitter had to say
Unnecessary. How about tackling real 21st century issues? A coherent policy on doc review would be great for us new lawyers @LawsocietyLSUC
Paul Schabas @LSUCTreasurer
“Out of touch, colonial, not inclusive, and pretentious.” Words shouldn’t be a barrier to reaching the public.
Charlotte Louise @carlottatweets
New name for @LawsocietyLSUC in November! #reconciliation #cdnlaw
Sandra Nishikawa @nishikawasandra
A small but key step toward progress & change @LawsocietyLSUC. #LSUC
Matthew Cressatti @MattCressatti
Access to justice issues? Articling positions? Nope, let’s worry about nomenclature @LawsocietyLSUC
Morgana Kellythorne @m_kellythorne
Next step, a new name for @LawsocietyLSUC. Something that makes it clearer that they regulate the legal and paralegal professions, maybe?
Sean Robichaud @SeanRobichaud
Well, there you have it folks . . . Be sure to purchase your collectibles here: https://store.lsuc.on.ca/gifts