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Life benchers concerned over shrinking role

|Written By Alex Robinson
Life benchers concerned over shrinking role
Michael Lerner says there should be at least one life bencher appointed to each committee at the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Life benchers are decrying their diminished role in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s governing committees.

At a special Convocation meeting in August, some life benchers took the opportunity to express concerns they had over their exclusion from many committees.

Treasurer Paul Schabas has cut down the size of the committees since he was elected last year and has given priority to elected benchers rather than life benchers, a grandfathered position that was given to benchers who had completed four elected terms, or 16 years, at Convocation.

Ross Murray, a life bencher from outside of Toronto, says he was disappointed to find that the number of life benchers appointed to the committees had dwindled.

“I was pretty upset last year when to my surprise none of the out-of-town life benchers were reappointed,” he says.

“We had all been on standing committees . . . but we were not reappointed.”

Murray says he was particularly concerned by the lack of life benchers from outside Toronto represented on the committees.

There are six ex-officio benchers that have been selected to serve on the committees, task forces and working groups that were approved for this year, but Murray says he would like to see more appointed, particularly from outside Toronto.

“I think we bring experience and knowledge of what’s going on in the profession as well as in Convocation,” he says.

But Schabas says priority must be given to elected and appointed benchers as they are accountable to members and the public.

“They were elected to be benchers,” he says.

“They were elected now for a limited period of time. We now have term limits. So they are the ones who are accountable.”

He says the same applies to appointed benchers, who are more accountable than life benchers, as they have limited terms and are selected by the attorney general of Ontario every four years.

Schabas says that when he ran for treasurer, he heard complaints from many benchers that the committees were too big and not as effective as they should be.

He says it was not easy to reduce the size of the committees with a board the size of Convocation’s, but he has managed to keep them to 15 or fewer members.

“Good governance involves having committees that are smaller and nimble and can be more efficient,” he says.

Life benchers were grandfathered a few years ago when Convocation implemented a number of governance reforms. These included limiting benchers to just three terms.

Those that were life benchers before the change continued to be life benchers, but there were no new life benchers created after that for benchers who had served a particular number of terms.

Former treasurers still, however, become ex-officio benchers after their term is complete.

Bencher Michael Lerner says life benchers make a valuable contribution to the conversation, particularly in committees. 

“They may have something to contribute to our current discussions. They may have been involved in decisions that we are currently reconsidering or reviewing,” he says.

“And that would certainly be helpful to our current deliberations to have the benefit of their experience and the nature of the discussion and the debate that occurred at the time that the issue was first before Convocation.”

Lerner says there should be at least one life bencher appointed to each committee.

He says that when there are no longer any life benchers, Convocation will lose the practical experience and knowledge they can bring to its discussions.

“Convocation will still be able to do its work, but it will have lost one resource that is currently available to it today,” he says.

Lerner also expressed some concern over what he said was an uneven standing between benchers from Toronto and outside in positions of responsibility on the committees.

In Convocation, 20 benchers are elected from Toronto and 20 are elected from outside of the city.

While in some committees, there is not a chairperson or vice chairperson from outside of Toronto, there are committees that do not have Toronto benchers filling such positions.

Lerner says there is still an uneven balance tipped in the favour of those in Toronto.

“I thought that it was appropriate if there was a Toronto chair that an outside Toronto [bencher] would be the vice chair and vice versa just to maintain the equality that exists in the constitution of Convocation with the number of elected benchers,” he says.

Schabas, however, says that where the benchers come from was not a factor in his decision-making and that he has simply tried to choose the best person for each position.

“There’s been no strategy or anything like that to favour in Toronto over out of Toronto,” he says.

Going forward, the law society’s governance task force will be looking into a whole range of governance issues that include the structure of committees, their relationship to the board and even the size of the board.

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