New OBA initiative to tackle inequality in the justice sector

New president says system stakeholders have long identified areas for improvement

New OBA initiative to tackle inequality in the justice sector
Charlene Theodore

An “ambitious agenda” to tackle inequality in the justice sector, is one of two new initiatives planned by the Ontario Bar Association’s new president Charlene Theodore.

Theodore assumed the role Sept. 1 and is the first Black lawyer to lead the OBA, an organization founded in 1907.

Under Theodore’s leadership, the OBA plans to fight inequality in the justice sector with the Not Another Decade initiative. For the next ten years, the OBA will set yearly goals to make “tangible and measurable improvements” in key areas that justice-system stakeholders have identified as requiring progress, says Theodore. 

“We really want to be able to, every year at the OBA for the next 10 years, identify one meaningful target for moving the markers on equality and inclusion for Black, Indigenous people and people of colour. And I think that the OBA is the organization that really is the best position to work with the various stakeholders in the Justice sector – who all want change – to really help light the path there.”

“The important thing to recognize about Not Another Decade is that it is something that I am starting, but it is something that will survive my presidency,” says Theodore. “The changes that I think most lawyers agree that are needed in the Justice sector, they're not going to happen in one year.”

With protests all over the continent organized in response to police brutality and anti-Black racism, Theodore says the world is currently amid a “global reckoning” with racial injustice. Lawyers understand the “fundamental importance” that all Canadians believe that the administration of justice is working for them, she says.

“From a personal perspective, I have both the lived experience and the expertise to speak about how to advance and create meaningful change on these topics,” Theodore says.

“I approach my presidency with a population of lawyers who know that there is work to be done to improve the justice sector and are keen to start working on those issues. I feel really positive. The issues have long been identified by lawyers… why we need to make some fundamental changes to the justice sector, why it's so important.”

A lawyer whose own practice has involved labour and employment and human rights work, Theodore says her focus for year one is on workplaces. The OBA’s second recently announced initiative is Work that Works, which will focus on building productive, healthy and inclusive workplaces in the legal profession. Theodore adds that, with the conversation on workplaces, the OBA is also attuned to mental health issues, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and how to harness innovation and technology to improve the Justice sector.

While the Not Another Decade project will focus on the justice sector, the OBA will seek partnerships with associations outside of it, to encourage similar action, said an announcement from the OBA.

“We want to partner with people both inside the justice administration system and other people outside of the justice administration system, and most notably those people who have had successes, especially when it comes to mental health, technology and reconciliation,” says Theodore. “We want to pull from various organizations both inside and outside law to be able to apply those best practices.”

Not Another Decade and Work that Works will build on the efforts of Theodore’s predecessor Lynne Vicars, Theodore says. Vicars focus was focussed on women in the legal system and gender equality and had organized a panel which brought together women in various professions – engineering, finance, accounting and law, to explore how their respective fields were addressing the issue, she says.

“Even though we are in different professions, we share a common issue or hurdle that we want to overcome. And we were able to share best practices in terms of what has worked for us in various fields,” she says. “Wherever there is an opportunity to do that, you want to take advantage of that.”

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