The top stories impacting lawyers now — Ontario’s 2019 legal year in review

FOCUS ON NEWSMAKERS - Legal aid cuts spark outcry - SOP shakes up LSO - articling crisis deepens - Women practitioners say enough’s enough

The top stories impacting lawyers now — Ontario’s 2019 legal year in review

Ontario’s legal professionals had no shortage of change to endure in 2019: The provincial or federal government either enacted or explored changes to criminal justice, labour laws, auto insurance, prompt payment and construction adjudication, catastrophic injury and family law, to name a few. In the north, Lakehead University is adjusting to a new dean who hopes to push back on the school’s penchant for controversy by focusing on Indigenous scholarship. In the south, the Ontario Court of Appeal opened its doors to live-streaming cameras, setting a much-debated trend that may continue. The judiciary also faced fresh scrutiny, first by the Law Society of Ontario and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and later by the national media in the wake of a federal political scandal.

But from clinics and tribunals to benchers and students to regulators and referral networks, stories had even bigger impacts on the profession. Here’s part 1 of our two-part series:

  1. Legal aid cuts spark outcry

Opposition to budget cuts at Legal Aid Ontario boiled over in 2019, and uncertainty persists as the bar looks to 2020. While underfunding of legal aid has long been a complaint among lawyers, 2019 marked a pivotal year for the issue.

At the end of March, the Society of United Professionals reached 400 legal professional members, after the addition of Legal Aid Ontario’s supervisory duty counsel lawyers. Weeks later, the provincial government announced a 2019 budget with $133 million less funding to Legal Aid Ontario — with plans to save $164 million each year starting in 2021.

The dramatic cut prompted LAO to slash $14.5 million from its clinic system — representing 21 per cent of cuts across the organization, with 30 per cent coming out of LAO's global budget, 27 per cent from certificates and 22 per cent of the cuts focused on immigration and refugee services.

Among the cuts to clinics were contingency funds, tenant duty counsel, landlord services and consolidated spending in Toronto. Parkdale Community Legal Services — one of the oldest clinics in the province and one that was already struggling to stay within the community — was among the hardest hit. LAO’s executives said that the Parkdale clinic previously received about $109 per low-income resident, compared to the average Toronto clinic that receives about $22 per low-income resident.

Lawyers rallied against the budget reduction, taking advantage of tools such as social media videos to target messages at members of provincial parliament. Protests of the legal aid cuts were hosted at Queen's Park, in the legislature, outside the office of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office and at “day of action” events across the province.

Amid prodding from the province, the federal government in August pledged $25.7M to Ontario immigration and refugee legal aid. While the move was celebrated by the Law Society of Ontario and the Ontario Bar Association, clinics that worked in other legal aid-funded areas of law — such as criminal law — said they continued to scrape by with bare-bones budgets.

Federal funding to immigration and refugee legal services is set to run out around March 2020, LAO estimated in October. Meanwhile, legal organizations continue to meet with Attorney General Doug Downey about widespread reform to the legal aid system. Enlisting the services of the private bar is more efficient than loading more work onto duty counsel, the Federation of Ontario Law Associations told the government in a recent submission.

“Legal Aid Services Offices do not work,” FOLA told the government in September.

  1. Statement of principles sweeps election and shakes up LSO

The Law Society of Ontario’s board of directors was elected in spring 2019, ushering in a wave of change in the approach to diversity and inclusion.

By the beginning of the year, it was clear that the election was unusual — with 128 lawyers on the ballot, the most candidates since at least the 1990s, if not earlier. Candidates covered a wide range of topics in their platforms: technology competency, funding for Pro Bono Ontario, the rural-urban divide in the profession, allocation of budget and lawyer fees, the role of paralegals in family law reform, the disciplinary system and the quality and cost of continuing professional development.

But despite tireless campaigning — including the unprecedented use of social media — no topic had as much sway as the statement of principles. A slate of benchers opposed to the statement of principles, StopSOP, won 22 seats in an election that ended April 30, upending a trend that incumbents be re-elected.

The election touched off renewed debate that had already dominated discourse since the statement of principles rule was passed in 2017. The diversity and inclusion requirement, criticized for infringing on free speech, states that lawyers must write a statement to the regulator promoting diversity and equality.

After the election results rolled in, supporters of the statement of principles moved quickly to try and galvanize support among the benchers outside the slate, launching a group called Demand Inclusion. Members were encouraged to post on social media, write to benchers and attend Convocation meetings. The LSO Equity Advisory Group also asked benchers to delay repealing the statement of principles requirement until a replacement diversity program could be studied.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the organization hung in the balance, as Toronto lawyer and StopSOP member Chi-Kun Shi announced she would run against incumbent Malcolm Mercer for treasurer.

Mercer emerged victorious, and he presided over two tense meetings — where the new benchers used every possible procedure to advance their support or opposition to the statement of principles. In the end, an uneasy compromise was reached: A less intensive equality and diversity acknowledgement will be added to lawyers’ annual reports. Benchers have vowed to move forward to bridge the divide as the regulator looks to 2020.

  1. Bar stands up for new calls as articling crisis deepens

At the start of 2019, the outlook for new calls was grim: The previous year, a survey found that one in five current or recent articling students faced harassment and discrimination, and alumni and students at University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall were pressing for lower law school tuition. In February, a survey found that first-generation law students were struggling, as more than 40 per cent of law students have a parent “with at least a master’s degree, a professional degree, or a doctorate degree.”

While young lawyers mulled over running for bencher, they found that it was too much to take on amid unpaid work, student debt, the partnership path and the costs of running a campaign.

Some of the remaining candidates sprung into action, calling for a new call bencher seat and launching a system to donate a sum of money for every lawyer who was called to the bar in the past decade and cast a bencher ballot. Later in the year, organizations such as the Criminal Lawyers Association and the Ontario Bar Association began collecting and distributing second-hand robes for graduates being called to the bar over the summer.

Meanwhile, Ryerson University announced a revamped law school plan — this time, one that would let students skip articling. When Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton rejected Ryerson’s initial proposal in November 2018, her statement said “jobs are expected to be more difficult to find” in the legal occupation.

“I think many law schools in Ontario are on board with that — having that opportunity for more clinical experience. But they do not by any means want to be seen as having that as the focus of what they do,” Yavar Hameed, principle of Hameed Law in Ottawa, told Law Times. “Ryerson is ready to push in a different direction.”

Still, there will be more challenges to come. Mary Condon, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, said in September that the government is working on plans to further measure the success of law school education.

“Given the cost of law school and the way it is expensive to run the kind of rich program that we offer our students, we are always, at least in the foreseeable future, going to have to think very hard at how we generate those kinds of resources,” Condon said.

  1. Women practitioners say enough’s enough

The LSO’s 2018 annual report shows that about 12.4 per cent of lawyers in Ontario were male law firm partners, compared to only 4.3 per cent of lawyers who were female partners. That means that, of 41,576 lawyers in Ontario, 5,168 were male partners out of the 23,594 male lawyers. Of 17,982 women lawyers, 1,770 were partners.

With 2019’s bencher election, lawyers doubled down Ontario’s representation of women in law is not good enough. Lenczner Slaght released ReferToHer, a list of experienced female lawyers with the aim of increasing referrals to Canadian women in the legal profession. And in February, the law society agreed to add a “gender-neutral” robing space in place of the men’s robing room, after outcry that the Lady Barristers’ room had 12 lockers and the men’s room had almost 70.

On Sept. 10, a year of discussions among women leaders culminated with the Ontario Bar Association’s Momentum Summit. At the event, legal leaders in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States told the Canadian bar they are looking at legislative, regulatory and cultural changes to combat sexual harassment amid an “inflection point” in the profession.

This is one of two stories in our Newsmakers focus. Check back later this week for the complete list.

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