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Law Society of Upper Canada mulls name change

|Written By Alex Robinson

The Law Society of Upper Canada is considering changing its name to move away from what critics say is an archaic tradition.

Julian Falconer says recommendations concerning the LSUC’s name could come before Convocation as early as this summer.

The provincial regulator’s Strategic Communications Steering Group is looking into the issue and could make a recommendation on it to the law society’s governing body, Convocation, as early as this summer or in the fall.

“Our name matters just like any name matters and we want to ensure that that name, while respecting traditions, also reflects who we are today, not just who we were 220 years ago,” says Bencher Julian Falconer, who is chairman of the steering group.

Falconer says the group was formed in February to consider how the law society interacts with the public, which includes the issue of its name. He stressed that the final decision on any potential name change will ultimately fall to benchers at Convocation once the steering group makes its recommendations.

“I can say, speaking for myself, it is high time we recognized that we are expected to be in touch with the public and expected to be accessible, and that includes our name,” he says.

The law society has had the same name since it was created in 1797 when Upper Canada was a province of a British colony. The law society held on to the name even when Upper Canada stopped being a political entity in 1841.  

Proponents of a change say the name points back to a dark chapter in the country’s colonial history when unfair treaties were negotiated between the government of the time and First Nations people. They also say that a name change would be consistent with the LSUC’s commitments to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action.

Tom Vincent, a lawyer with the Ministry of Justice, proposed a motion at the LSUC’s annual general meeting back in 2012, asking the regulator to consider changing its name. The motion was voted down, but Vincent says the issue still resonates with him.

“Essentially, I think that the name ‘Upper Canada’ is archaic and poorly serves the public interest,” he says. “While ‘Upper Canada’ is a cool name for an antique shop, perhaps a candle manufacturer or a brewery, the name does not properly describe the geographic jurisdiction of Ontario.”

Vincent says that Upper Canada does not include what is now northern Ontario and that names such as Ontario Law Society or the Law Society of Ontario would be more suitable. The province of Upper Canada included what is today southern Ontario.

“This is just my own opinion, but as someone who does an extensive amount of work in northern Ontario for indigenous communities, it is very difficult explaining who Upper Canada is,” says Falconer.

Vincent says changing the name would also enhance the public’s understanding of the organization and would be more consistent with the names of lawyer regulators in other provinces, such as the Law Society of British Columbia and the Law Society of Alberta.

“I know we are a conservative organization, but hanging on to this pre-1841 name is ridiculous as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday,” Vincent says.

“We can do better. Let right prevail.”

Vincent says he thinks a name change for the organization is now inevitable. Other critics say the name is simply confusing to members of the public. Those in the profession who have resisted a name change say it would be counterproductive.

Earl Cherniak, a partner with Lerners LLP, says he sees “no logical, historical or other basis to change the name.”

“It’s always been the Law Society of Upper Canada,” he says. “It has got historical value.”

Cherniak notes that the law society had no role in negotiating the treaties indigenous communities struck with the government during the time Upper Canada existed.

He also says that changing the name could actually be more confusing for the public, as it could be hard for them to distinguish between the “Law Society of Ontario” and the Ontario Bar Association.

“The law society was and is the oldest law society in the Commonwealth and that is a historical fact that I believe should be venerated,” he says.

Falconer says that the steering group is still in the “formulating stage” of its initiatives, but it has been active in expert consultations to get an idea as to how the public and licensees feel about such issues.

The steering group’s recommendations will also look to improve public awareness of how to tackle legal problems and the law society’s communications strategies.

“There are a whole series of steps as a regulator we need to look at to strengthen our ability to service the public and to truly represent the public interest,” Falconer says. “It’s not just the name change. It’s a whole series of measures we’re working on.”

He says the process is long overdue, but the steering group is actively tackling these issues.

Falconer says the law society has a window of opportunity at the moment to make itself more relevant that was brought about with a change in governance and a more diverse roster of benchers that were elected in 2015.

In an emailed statement, LSUC Treasurer Paul Schabas said, “We wish to be a progressive and responsive regulator, and this issue is one that we will be giving careful consideration, including hearing from the public and members.”

  • Lawyer

    Kevin Bunt
    I agree with Mr. Cherniak, the name "Law Society of Upper Canada" has historical value and significance.

    If the name is to be changed because it is "archaic and poorly serves the public interest", and if the purpose of a new name is to better "reflect who we are today", then a "more suitable" name would be the "Ontario Lawyers Regulatory Organization".
  • lawyer

    Alan Heisey
    The history of Upper Canada is something to be celebrated and remembered. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to move to abolish slavery in one of its first legislative acts. The people advancing this tried in 2012 and lost. If the Society is going to seriously consider this it has to be put to a vote of all of the members of the Law Society in a referendum at the next Bencher elections and should not be decided by Convocation.
  • Partner, BRS Recruiting

    James Linden
    It's a great idea that's long overdue. Upper Canada as a geographic entity no longer exists. It should be clear what geographic area the LSUC regulates from its name alone. After all, the Ontario public relies on the LSUC to regulate the legal profession and must be able to easily identify the office of the regulatory body.

    No one uses the name "Upper Canada" anymore except for products and societies focussed on the colonial past. The LSUC has done a great job preserving its history, for instance with Osgoode Hall, but its focus is on the legal profession in the present and in the future in Ontario. The name of a non-existent geopolitical entity is no substitute for the name of the place where the Law Society has jurisdiction.
  • Lawyer

    Michael Balter
    A name change is a ridiculously bad idea and considering the change is a colossal waste of time and money. The existing name is not offensive and it is historical in nature. Arguing that we need to change the name is like arguing we should have more streetcars and bike lanes in Toronto. Oops...this has already happened. Just take a peek in Toronto, down Adelaide or Richmond or Wellington or King etc and you will see the awful consequences of adopting theoretically good ideas . Save the money LSUC, cancel the hearings and shift to topics that actually matter to lawyers, the public and the judicial system.
  • The Legal A Team | Legal Marketing & PR

    Jana Schilder
    A name change would be a jolly good idea.

    Upper Canada refers to the fact that it was "up the river," meaning the St. Lawrence River. (Lower Canada was the province of Quebec.) Upper Canada became Ontario in 1841. That's 150 years ago!!

    More to the point, what does the The Law Society of Upper Canada see in its future? Does it want to be progressive and forward-looking, or looking into the mirror of history?
  • lawyer

    Ken Chasse
    Half the people living in the Toronto area, and in many other parts of Canada, were not born in Canada. To them, the "Law Society of Upper Canada" is a law society for lawyers whose offices are in "upper Canada," i.e., above the 60th parallel of north latitude. Change LSUC's name to, "The Law Society of Ontario--formerly the Law Society of Upper Canada."
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