Courthouse law libraries get funding boost at Law Society of Ontario Convocation vote

Federation of Ontario Law Associations chair applauds vote, says funding will spare licensees' money

Courthouse law libraries get funding boost at Law Society of Ontario Convocation vote
Douglas Judson says courthouse libraries are “mission critical” to lawyers in remote areas.

The Federation of Ontario Law Associations, which penned an open letter to benchers seeking support for courthouse law libraries in the current budget, has achieved its goal.

Last Thursday, Convocation passed the 2023 budget, which included a $17 increase to $200 in the county libraries fund.

“As we head into the bencher election cycle, there’s been a lot of sabre rattling about fiscal conservatism, financial restraint and lower licensing fees,” says Douglas Judson, the chair of the FOLA. “Our letter aimed at distilling the truth about the cost-benefit trade-off between the portion of the licensing fee attributable to the county and district law library system and the benefits the system brings, especially to smaller centres.”

As Judson sees it, there are contradictions in some benchers’ arguments about licensing fees and the place of courthouse libraries.

“Some benchers are speaking out of both sides of their mouth: they want to make practising cheaper by decreasing licensing fees, but not supporting courthouse libraries will increase lawyers’ overheads. And those who support competency initiatives should not be railing against providing resources to the members of the profession who need them most.”

Ontario’s 48 courthouse law libraries are now known as practice resource centres. The Legal Information and Resource Network is a not-for-profit corporation responsible for supporting and coordinating the network. The Law Society of Ontario funds LiRN, whose mandate is to ensure the PRCs meet the evolving needs of the profession and the public through the annual licensing fees it collects from lawyers (but not paralegals – more about that later).

“PRCs are the bricks and mortar of the LSO’s statutory obligation to ensure competency in the profession,” Judson says.

Some benchers believe that The Law Foundation of Ontario, which makes grants to promote access to justice, should fund PRCs. But Judson says that won’t work in the long term.

“The LFO’s revenues are variable, and the LSO has no control over how the foundation allocates its money. It’s unlikely that LiRN can achieve its goals without consistency and stability. The LSO, through its annual fees, is the only source available for the sustainable revenue PRCs need.”

The allocation to the library fund amounts to about 10 percent of lawyers’ licensing fees. Judson says that’s a bargain which promotes access to justice by making practice more viable and affordable, particularly outside larger centres and firms.

“The practice and legal information supplied through bulk purchasing by LiRN affords access to valuable online information that is otherwise unaffordable to sole practitioners and lawyers in small firms. For example, the services provided by Thomson Reuters (Westlaw), Lexis Nexis and vLex alone would cost a sole practising lawyer almost $8,300 per year if purchased individually.”

As recently as May 2022, Convocation approved the final report of the Competence Task Force, which noted that the “competent provision of legal services requires access to legal information,” that legal information services play a vital role in the enhancement of licensee competence, and that “as sole practitioners and small firms provide the overwhelming majority of legal services to individuals, families and very small businesses, these practices are crucial in providing access to justice and their viability should be a priority for the Law Society.”

That’s particularly true in isolated locations.

“The proximity of PRCs is mission critical to anyone, particularly new calls, setting up in remote areas,” Judson says.

Allen Wynperle, a sole practitioner practising personal injury law in Hamilton, says that PRCs are more than just information repositories.

“The libraries are a central part of the legal community, even in Toronto, and not just a place where books are getting dusty on shelves. Most continuing education programs run through PRCs, they disseminate information weekly about developments in the courts, they provide a place for engaging with the judiciary, and they serve as a mentorship centre.”

Currently, paralegals do not contribute to the county library fund.

“Convocation hasn’t considered the issue, but that discussion should be on the table eventually, as competency matters for all licensees,” Judson says. “If we’re looking at expanding the scope of paralegal practice, it makes sense they should have access to the same competency support lawyers do.”

Wynperle agrees.

“I believe paralegals should pay the levy or a modified one, but that’s not up to me.”

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