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Mental health

Editorial Obiter

There’s a kinder, gentler way mental health is being approached by the legal profession.

Late last year, research by two University of Toronto sociologists created an extensive buzz in the legal community and beyond, reporting that the more lawyers got paid, the more likely they were to feel depression and experience dissatisfaction with their career choice and work-life balance conflict.

A recent Law Society Tribunal ruling pointed a finger at the Law Society of Ontario for its failure to accommodate a lawyer, Jeffrey Burtt, who was dealing with depression while investigating a complaint against him. Burtt was called to the bar in 1990, but he only ran into issues with the regulator in recent years. Burtt said an investigation by the regulator over allegations he breached the Rules of Professional Conduct caused him to “freeze,” and Bencher Larry Banack agreed, saying investigators should have been aware of medical assessments from a previous disciplinary encounter that should have alerted them to the need to approach his case differently.

“Mental illness is a medical condition, not a personality defect. A major depressive disorder is a debilitating illness that must be recognized as such,” said the ruling. 

Notably, in his ruling, Banack went one step even further — calling on funding for a duty counsel system for lawyers involved in discipline matters.

“[It] is now time for the Society to implement a funded, permanent duty counsel system for the benefit of all licensees. The Law Society should not be complacent with its reliance on an institutionalized Volunteer Duty Counsel programme. 

“The very serious potential outcomes of a discipline proceeding, which include licence revocation, should not depend upon the vagaries of a volunteer lawyer being available and able to fulfill the duties of counsel in opposition to the well-funded, full-time, professional group of Discipline Counsel trained by and working for the Law Society,” said the ruling. 

All lawyers should think carefully about this option. If societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable, then this might apply.

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