Family law resolution stokes debate at law society AGM

Early in May, it seemed some drama might explode at the normally sleepy Law Society of Upper Canada annual general meeting.

Some paralegals decided this was their time to push for broader authority to represent clients, particularly in family law matters. They drafted a motion directing the law society to address the issue and gave notice they would move and second it at the May 5 meeting.

The criminal and family law bars quickly mobilized in opposition. The press took note. Rival organizations of lawyers and paralegals were reportedly rallying their members to pack the meeting.

Then the paralegals withdrew the motion, and everyone lost interest in the meeting again.
Memo to both sides: read the fine print or read history. There’s a reason why the annual meeting is generally such a quiet affair. The bar sorted this out back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Annual general meetings of the law society were new then. The first took place in 1968, and the government made them obligatory under the Law Society Act of 1970. The first meetings turned into stormy confrontations.

Partly, it was the legacy of the ’60s. There were radical lawyers’ unions, progressive caucuses, aggrieved legal aid lawyers, and other assertive factions. In those days, the law society exuded mystery and authority as the benchers still met in secret.

The gulf between the conclave of establishment barristers and the rowdy mob of long-haired hippy street lawyers, as each saw the other, was vast. Civility wasn’t universal. Someone described Convocation as a “comatose impotent dwarf.”

Against that backdrop, every annual general meeting became a battleground where the outsiders hoped to push through ever more radical resolutions. Most of their proposals have long since become reality, but in the early ’70s, motions to turn legal aid over to the government or abolish the Queen’s counsel designation still carried a whiff of revolution.

It became a new treasurer’s ordeal every spring to brave the young lions at the annual general meeting. Stuart Thom, normally a mild-mannered and politically rather progressive tax lawyer, consulted the police before the 1975 event. It might be necessary, he thought, to place some undercover officers in the crowd.

Yet after a few stormy years, the change agents among the lawyers lost interest in the annual meeting. The yearly events ceased to feature inconvenient resolutions. Attracting a quorum became the biggest challenge.

The change stemmed from a determination Convocation made in 1969, when benchers reluctantly confronted the resolutions from the first annual general meeting in 1968. They had to determine what force and authority the resolutions would have.

Their conclusion was clear. “Resolutions of the annual general meeting are persuasive but not binding,” the benchers declared in March 1969.

They had a point. Benchers might be considered elitist, out of touch, and reactionary, but they had at least won their seats in an election open to every member of the bar. The quorum at the annual general meeting, by contrast, was whoever showed up. Groups that could successfully pack a meeting couldn’t therefore claim they actually represented the bar in general.

Henceforth, the benchers treated resolutions with as much interest as they chose to have. It wasn’t Convocation that ended the Queen’s counsel designation, and the government didn’t take over legal aid until the late 1990s. Once the bar saw how little force the resolutions had, there was no point in pushing them through year after year.

Today, paralegals and family lawyers are both welcome at the annual general meeting, of course. But before they go to the mat over who can bring out the most partisans to support or defeat a controversial resolution, they might refresh themselves on the rules of the game.

It doesn’t really matter who wins and loses at the annual general meeting. If you want to make or stop change, it’s the institutions that really have power you need to get at.

Christopher Moore’s newest book is The British Columbia Court of Appeal: The First Hundred Years. His web site is www.christophermoore.ca.

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