In my view, bencher election campaign spending should not be allowed for candidates and, if allowed, it should be a very modest amount.
I did not spend any money to promote my candidacy as a bencher. I believe we are a self-governing profession mandated to govern and provide legal service to the Ontario public. The bencher election campaign is not for the purpose of determining which group interest will be advanced. It is to determine who is better qualified to govern a professional organization.
To the extent that we have a conflict between our self interest as a group in sharing the revenue pie and competing with each other in providing legal services to the community as a professional group, the conflict should be resolved by advancing the principles of democracy, transparency, and adjudication in discipline matters within our institutions of Convocation and governance with well-enunciated principles of fairness that we advocate in our daily lives.
The reason, I believe, only a fraction of the membership takes an interest in voting in the bencher election is many younger and small-firm practitioners and diverse groups do not feel they will have the ability to achieve the make changes in our governance. Yes, we are a conservative profession and need to be, but the pace of change for the better should not be slowed down to the detriment of small-firm practitioners and equity-seeking groups.
The fact that 20 seats of the 40 up for grabs go to lawyers from Toronto works in favour of the large firms that already have the vote banks and the financial resources to pay for expensive campaigning. The weight of their opinion in governance works in their favour at Convocation meetings that I feel should be made transparent through open meetings.
Why should campaign funds not be allowed? First, most of the 45,000 lawyers in Ontario have two degrees and can easily read the background of the candidates put out by the Law Society of Upper Canada. When you permit
campaign spending, you are allowing the candidates with particular interests to promote themselves and maintain the status quo. On that issue, introducing term limits was a good change.
Second, about 80 per cent of lawyers in Ontario practise at small firms, but it is the big firms that have the financial resources to pay for expensive advertising of up to $70,000. The fact that there are no limits placed on campaign spending works in favour of large firms. Spending should be limited by a resolution of Convocation.
We should not forget the legislated and historical mandate of the legal profession to protect the public interest. The first six barristers from England who started the law society in 1797 brought with them a few hundred years of a tradition of law and equity that has evolved over the last 200 years in Ontario and is now a part of s. 4(2) of the Law Society Act that mandates that we must protect the public interest and we have a duty to act in a timely, open, and efficient manner. Timeliness, in my view, includes advancing democratic principles such as the Human Rights Code and in discipline matters. I believe what we preach in the courts each day should be practised in our governing institutions.
In the 21st century, the profession needs to look outwards to other jurisdictions for ideas in a shrinking world. We have achieved a great reputation abroad, but the task of maintaining our reputation as a leading jurisdiction is an ongoing challenge. In my lectures to several bar associations around the world, including the Bermuda Bar Association where I spoke in April of this year, I’ve sensed a great degree of awareness of our role as lawyers acting in the public interest. The assumption that minorities and women have less to contribute in leadership roles in our profession needs to change, something that is not necessarily achieved with political-style campaigning with no limits on spending.
2015 bencher candidate,
Richmond Hill, Ont.