A rare overflow crowd turned up last week at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s annual general meeting, where a majority voted for the governing body to ditch its use of the term “licensee” when referring to lawyers.
Many lawyers scrambled into the meeting in the Osgoode Hall dining room at the last minute, after receiving notice of the motion via an Ontario Bar Association mass e-mail. The motion - the first since 1997 to be introduced at a law society AGM - was passed by a majority vote of 54-40.
The term “licensee” was introduced in 2006 with changes to the Law Society Act, as part of the Access to Justice Act, which brought paralegal regulation under the law society’s purview. An LSUC spokesman says the government adopted the term as a generic reference to all individuals who are part of the society - both lawyers and paralegals.
The term is now found in the Law Society Act, as a substitute for “member,” in reference to those licensed to practise law in Ontario as a barrister and solicitor, or anyone else licensed to provide legal services in the province, such as paralegals.
Toronto immigration and criminal law lawyer Mary Boyce submitted the motion at the law society AGM. It states that “it is demeaning to lawyers to be treated as a class of licensee.”
The motion calls for amendments to the law society’s bylaws to replace the term “licensee” with “lawyer” or “barrister and solicitor,” and asks that lawyers in good standing be called “members.” It asks the law society to repeal any changes made to the barristers’ oath, ensure that it is administered only to admittants to the bar, and for consultation to the profession before any future changes to the barristers’ oath.
Boyce told the meeting that she first noticed the use of the term “licensee” in her member’s annual report.
“For some, it seemed to be a lowering of the bar, a demeaning of the bar,” she said. “Words matter; they are our stock and trade.”
Many lawyers at the meeting voiced their concern with the change in language.
Karen Andrews said she keeps a copy of the barristers’ oath at her desk.
“This is fundamental to who we are and how we practise, and now it’s gone,” she said.
A lawyer who identified herself as a provincial offences prosecutor said she’s been disturbed by a recent trend of justices of the peace referring to paralegals as “officers of the court” or “friends of the court.”
“We are no longer a profession,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake.”
Paralegals also attended the meeting, and some spoke against the motion.
Franz Hansen said the motion is premature, and suggested paralegal regulation by the law society is about ethics. He said he embraces the standards he and his colleagues will have to live up to through law society regulation.
Law society Bencher Heather Ross, who is part of a group looking into changes to the barristers’ oath, invited lawyers to send comments to her on the issue. She said the group hopes to take its findings to the profession for debate before its final draft.
Bencher Judith Potter said the law society and her fellow benchers did a poor job of consulting with lawyers about the way paralegals would be brought into the law society.
“Nobody seems to clearly understand what we are and what we aren’t,” she said.
Law society spokesman Roy Thomas says the organization uses the term “licensee” for regulatory purposes, but “from the business, corporate point of view, the term ‘members’ still applies to all lawyers and paralegals.”
Boyce, who has been practising since 1971, tells Law Times in an interview that she was disturbed by the “watering down” of access to justice aspects of the barristers’ oath, and that “it’s now a licensees’ oath.” She says other professions would not permit similar changes to their own oaths.
“Neither engineers nor doctors would dream of changing the language so that technicians and orderlies and the like could swear the same thing,” says Boyce.
She says she also was struck by changes to the use of the term “member” in law society bylaws.
“It did, parenthetically, appear a bit weird that one could have a society without members,” says Boyce. “It seemed to be a contradiction in terms.”
According to law society bylaws, motions made at the annual general meeting require the signature of at least 10 members in good standing. At the meeting, one of those 10 must bring the motion forward, and it must be seconded by another member of the group. Treasurer Gavin MacKenzie made an exception at the meeting when none of the other 10 signatories were in attendance, and allowed an additional member to second the motion.
Law society benchers, however, are not bound by the vote at the general meeting. The motion must be communicated to Convocation and considered within six months.
Boyce encouraged benchers to follow the instructions of those who voted at the AGM.
“They should be listening to us members,” she says. “The changes that have been made have come about without any consultation, and it’s quite obvious that a large number of lawyers are very disturbed by these changes, and they’ve just been sprung on us. We’ve had no way to give any input. I think that will change.”