Coalition and FullStop slate members accuse each of politicizing LSO
Sustainable funding for local law libraries is among the major issues in this year’s Law Society of Ontario Bencher election, says Good Governance Coalition candidate, Atrisha Lewis.
The deadline for voting is April 28, and voters will select 20 Benchers from Toronto, 20 from outside Toronto, and five paralegals. Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor-in-Council will also appoint eight lay Benchers.
The Good Governance Coalition (GGC) has 45 candidates on its team. The FullStop slate, formerly StopSOP, has 35, but said it will also be endorsing several other paralegal candidates. In all, there are 107 lawyers running to be LSO Benchers, with 54 from Toronto, and 53 from the rest of the province. There are also 19 paralegal candidates.
Ontario’s 48 courthouse law libraries are run by the Legal Information and Resource Network (LiRN). Convocation cut funding to LiRN in its 2021 budget, but then increased it in the 2023 budget.
“The services, alone, that local libraries provide to those practicing in sole- and small-practices, I think, are unparalleled,” says Lewis, who is a partner in McCarthy Tétrault’s Litigation Group in Toronto.
Local libraries provide bulk purchasing of subscriptions to services such as Westlaw and LexisNexis, which to an individual lawyer would cost $8,300. Members of the FullStop slate have advocated for local-library funding to be given to the Law Foundation of Ontario, an organization over which the LSO has no control, she says.
“I think that's going to be a big issue, whether or not there is sustainable funding for local libraries.”
The FullStop slate has taken several other actions during the last term with which Lewis takes issue. These include opposing minimum wage for articling students, bringing a motion to repeal the Bencher code of conduct, and their tendency to bypass the committee processes and bring motions to the floor.
“The committee process… is where issues are studied, researched, and through which we do consultations, and we obtain legal advice on issues,” she says. “It's an important process. If you have an idea or something you want to look up, research, or have convocation think about, we have a committee process so that that work can be done.”
“It's a waste of time when people bring motions by bypassing the committee process, because then everyone's voting without full information.”
For FullStop candidate Lisa Bildy, the most significant issues at stake in the upcoming election is restoring the LSO to its core mandate: “regulating competence and ethical practice.”
“The big governance slate doesn't like debate,” says Bildy. “It doesn't like motions being brought to get discussion onto the floor of convocation, rather than hidden behind closed doors at confidential committee meetings.”
During the last term, FullStop Benchers sought to make LSO executive salaries public, roll back “ideological imperatives,” “reign in budgetary excess,” and they successfully repealed the statement of principles, she says. This term, they will aim to “reduce bureaucratic interference,” lower fees, “rationalize the budget,” and de-politicize the LSO.
A FullStop press release announcing the slate’s campaign said the GGC was organized as a slate to continue the LSO’s efforts in ensuring “ideological conformity” among the professions.
“The StopSOP benchers have worked hard over the last four years to try to reduce members’ fees, increase transparency, and remove the politicizing influence of the ‘woke’ ideology that permeates the LSO,” says Dr. Ryan Alford, an LSO Bencher elected on the StopSOP slate and FullStop candidate in this year’s election. “But it was difficult to accomplish these tasks without a majority.”
Lewis says the GGC does not have a distinct political ideology and has members from across the political spectrum.
“The idea is not to be political, but to bring responsible governance back to the Law Society,” she says. “I think the FullStop slate are the ones actually politicizing the Law Society.”
While FullStop members say the LSO is subject to “mission creep” and has an undue focus on equity, less than one percent of the LSO’s budget goes toward equity, says Lewis.
“To me, good governance is not about politicizing it. Frankly, it's the opposite. The Good Governance Coalition will de-politicize Convocation.”
Lewis first ran for the LSO in 2019 to bring a “fresh perspective” to Convocation, she says. A sixth-year call at the time, she ran on a platform of diversity and inclusion and bringing a younger perspective to the regulatory body, so that decisions about issues such as the bar exam and articling were not only made by Benchers 30-years removed from those experiences.
The GGC was organized to prevent the vote-splitting which brought 22 Benchers from the StopSOP slate to Convocation in 2019, says Lewis. While they had between 4,100 and 5,100 votes, 11,000 lawyers did not vote for slate members, she says. But the slate constituted 22 of the 40 elected lawyer Benchers.
“If you were voting for the slate, you knew who to vote for and you voted for the 22, whereas everyone else’s vote was split amongst over 100 candidates. It had the impact of permitting the slate to consolidate their votes.”
“That was a phenomenon that worked… We want to avoid that vote-splitting phenomenon, which is why we created the good governance coalition to give the professions a clear choice.”
While the GGC does not agree on everything, says Lewis, they represent a diverse group of leaders in the profession, including members from small and large firms, from various practice areas, and include in its number past presidents of the Canadian Bar Association, and the Ontario Bar Association.
“It's really a diverse, representative group. It looks like the profession,” she says.
Bildy has characterized the GGC as “the big governance slate,” and representative of the establishment, while Fullstop represents the “rank-and-file.”
“We're not establishment. We mirror the profession,” says Lewis. “We have in-house lawyers. We have solicitors. We have lawyers who are part of legal clinics. We have members of the criminal defence bar. We have Crowns. We have people who work for regulators. We have family lawyers. We have mediators and arbitrators. We have people who work for academia. We have litigators, both small-firm and large firm. We literally represent the profession. We look like the profession. We have gender parity, like the profession.
The legal profession should not take self-regulation for granted, and it is at stake in this election she says.
“Frankly, a lot hasn't gotten done in the last four years. Convocation was divided. The atmosphere was hostile. I think it's important that we restore the Law Society to a place where there can be respectful debate and actual work being done on important issues.”
“Self-governance is threatened by the politicization of the Law Society,” says Bildy. “No profession requires independence more than lawyers, who are the last line of defence for clients of all persuasions. No one is well served if lawyers and paralegals are permitted to provide legal services only if they comport with the Law Society’s political imperatives.”