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Resorts conferences, limos among justice spending revealed in public accounts

|Written By Shannon Kari

The Ministry of the Attorney General paid more than $1.8 million last year to cover the cost of resort-based conferences for lawyers, judges, and justices of the peace as well as limousine services for the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The Ontario Court of Appeal billed $178,000 for limo services.

The province detailed payments made by the ministry in the fiscal year that ended on March 31 in the annual public accounts made public late last month.

Overall, expenditures on outside counsel were down in part because the inquiry into the mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont., had caused a spike in legal expenses in the previous year.

The ministry had a total operating expense of $1.67 billion in the fiscal year 2014-15, an amount that was down $60 million from the year before primarily because of a drop in funds related to the Proceedings Against the Crown Act. More than a quarter of the total operating expense was for court services.

Among the expenses was for the annual criminal law division conference in 2014 at the Blue Mountain resort at a cost to the ministry of $277,730. A spokeswoman for the ministry said it has an obligation to provide training to Crown attorneys and education on policies and changes in the law. “The annual education conference represents a cost-efficient opportunity to ensure that Ontario’s prosecution service is in compliance with the Law Society of Upper Canada’s continuing professional development requirements,” says Emilie Smith, a spokeswoman for the ministry. Cost and the ability to accommodate 500 to 600 people are among the factors involved in deciding on a venue for the conference.

The annual Association of Law Officers of the Crown conference took place last fall at the White Oaks Resort and Spa in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont. The public accounts indicate a payment of $375,915 to the association that represents about 750 government lawyers outside of the criminal sphere. The contribution is part of the collective agreement between the province and the association.

Kate Matthews, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys’ Association, and Earl Dumitru, who heads the Association of Law Officers of the Crown, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the conferences.

The public accounts included $1 million spent by the Ontario Court of Justice for six educational conferences, spread over 16 days, at the Deerhurst Resort and White Oaks.

“Timely and effective judicial education sessions are a critical responsibility for the court,” says Kate Andrew, senior counsel in the chief justice’s office. “The sessions brought together almost a thousand faculty and judicial participants on a range of criminal, family, and provincial offences legal issues — as well as judicial case management, technology, professional and ethical issues.”

The public accounts also include a cost of $178,000 for limousine services for the Court of Appeal. Alison Warner, senior legal officer at the court, says limousine services have “historically been provided” to its judges on days they hear appeals. “Court of Appeal judges often work while they are commuting and often transport large amounts of materials back and forth from work,” says Warner.

“These services are used by some judges of the Court of Appeal, some of whom live considerable distance from Osgoode Hall.” Limousine services also used to be available to Superior Court judges in Toronto until the NDP government ended the practice in the early 1990s.

The public accounts indicate expenditures of a further $57,000 on limousines. “In addition to the Court of Appeal, Rosedale Livery Inc. was engaged by the Superior Court of Justice,” the ministry said.

While conferences at resorts and limousines aren’t part of the work environment at community legal clinics, Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, says he’s not complaining about such perks.

“We could always use more money,” he says. But the long-term increases in funding for legal aid announced this year, including for clinics, is welcome news, he says, suggesting the province “has taken an important step in the right direction.”

The inquiry into the June 2012 mall collapse in Elliot Lake also affected the top billings by outside counsel. Commission counsel and lawyers involved in the inquiry billed a total of just under $1.6 million for fees and disbursements. The previous year, when the bulk of the inquiry took place, total legal billings were $4.9 million.

Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, which had two of the three commission counsel at the inquiry, had the top billings for outside counsel in 2014-15 at $1.1 million.

The second highest billings came in at $538,329 from Toronto firm Henein Hutchison LLP. The ministry says the amount was for legal work related to disciplinary proceedings before the Justices of the Peace Review Council and the Ontario Judicial Council.

In addition, there were 11 lawyers who each billed more than $200,000 in fees and disbursements for services provided to the Office of the Children’s Lawyer.

  • This is not news

    Ian C
    I would have hoped the Law Times to be beyond the "gotcha" spending article that runs simply because the MAG dared to spend money on its lawyers and judges. I certainly expect its readers are so hopefully the editorial board will follow.
  • conferences are good value

    John G
    Besides what Ms Gupta says above, I might note that the conferences at 'resorts' tend to be during mud season, rather than when the sites are desirable for tourists - so the rates are lower.

    Certainly for the civil lawyers, there is enough high quality CLE for everyone to get their annual requirement - how much would that cost if 400 or 500 lawyers were paying even OBA or LSUC rates for CLE, much less the commercial providers' rates?

    And it is high quality - outside and inside speakers alike. Lots of topics aren't even available outside government but are critical to Crown counsel.

    It is hugely valuable to have face time with people who are otherwise only phone or email contacts - one can deal more frankly and fully with people one has learned to trust by meeting them in person.

    It is disappointing to see this publication practising the politics of envy.
  • Headline Unfair

    Neena Gupta
    I often find these articles, in which there seems to be an effort to insinuate that spending on a conference located at a pleasant resort is somehow inappropriate. The reality is that continuing education is critically important. Conferences in cities are often more expensive and the reality is that busy counsel are often tempted to skip a portion or all of the conference because of the venue's proximity to the event. In many cases, the venues are far cheaper than mid-priced hotels in large city centres. Our Crown Counsel deserve a budget for excellent education. Despite the advances in technology, in-person conferences simply offer a richer experience. If we are to have these articles, let us try to contextualize them. How much do mid-size law firms spend on average to educate their lawyers? What about larger firms? Please -- no more cheap insinuations against our colleagues working for MAG.
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