Law Society Election Tests the Legal Profession, and Our Political Resilience
2023 Bencher Election of the Law Society of Ontario
It has been said of U.S. Republicans that every accusation is a confession. Lately, this could aptly describe a faction of Ontario’s legal profession too.
“FullStop”, a slate of right-wing candidates for the governing body of the Law Society of Ontario, has spent the past two months wagging political fingers at their opponents while running a deeply ideological campaign of their own, with little substantive platform to offer. If they’re successful, the repercussions for the legal community, and certainly the public, could be significant.
FullStop is explicitly opposed to anti-racism initiatives. It rose as a political force in the 2019 Law Society election, opposed to recommendations to address challenges facing racialized persons within and seeking to join the legal professions. As a result of vote-splitting among the other, independent candidates, FullStop secured 22 out of 40 of the seats for lawyer benchers at Convocation (this what we call the Law Society board and its directors). Since then, a handful of paralegal benchers and lay benchers appointed by the Attorney General have been standing between FullStop and majority control.
This month lawyers and paralegals go back to the polls. FullStop is on the ballot with a campaign to “Stop BLOAT, Stop CREEP, Stop WOKE”. In its most deceptively gentle framing, their campaign is a call for the Law Society to reduce its size and regulatory scope (and, consequently, the annual costs to run it that are paid by lawyers and paralegals) and to pull back from equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives.
Reasonable people may have disagreements about the performance of the Law Society, where it can find efficiencies, and how far it ought to go to address inequities and systemic racism in the legal community. But reasoned outcomes are evidently not what FullStop has in mind.
Their campaign baselessly claims that the Law Society has been “politicized” by “woke” anti-racism initiatives, and that only FullStop can return it to true political “neutrality”. Yet FullStop’s own candidates have been unmasked as anything but “neutral” on these topics. A number of them have been exposed on social media for engaging in overt racism, homophobia and transphobia, and antisemitism, including in their professional activism and public commentary. Others deny the existence of systemic racism and have publicly attacked anti-racism efforts. A number of their candidates do not even practice law, underscoring the slate’s ideological fixation.
On the “bloat” front, FullStop has yet to provide specifics. While its incumbents have brought forward failed motions to cut the Law Society’s budget by blanket double-digit percentages, none have stated where they expect to find the savings. A logical conclusion is that the cuts will come at great pain to the profession, and ultimately the public.
Many fear that the Law Society’s funding of courthouse law libraries may get the ax, jeopardizing the ability of lawyers across the province to provide cost-effective service to their clients, particularly in smaller centres. The fact that almost half of the 35 FullStop candidates declined to answer questions about their views on this issue from the Federation of Ontario Law Associations has caused much alarm. (FOLA, the chief advocate for law libraries, has had to address misleading statements from FullStop on libraries. FullStop did not react well.)
Still others fear that FullStop could embark on a reckless effort to cut Law Society staff, investigations, or complaint resources, creating significant risks for the public that compromise the privilege of self-regulation altogether. This could lead to the problematic outcome that the province steps in to regulate lawyers directly – i.e., the same folks lawyers periodically need to sue or that are trying to throw their clients in jail.
The calls to end “bloat” and “creep” seem driven more by reactionary political rage than actual evidence. Their goal is to end EDI by starving the institution’s budget, while running the Law Society to accord with the wishes of lawyers rather than needs of the public.
Frankly, for a campaign clutching its pearls at the supposed progressive political capture of the Law Society and calling for a return to the regulator’s “core mandate”, FullStop is the only force in this election fomenting a toxic culture war and ignoring what the actual core mandate of the Law Society is.
The Law Society’s function, under statute, is to regulate the legal professions to protect the public. It does this partly by ensuring lawyers meet high standards of competence. The ability to make complaints about lawyers and have resources for the bar, like courthouse law libraries across the province, are central to this mandate.
In exercising its functions, the Law Society has a duty “to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario”, a premise that is imbued with EDI principles. The Supreme Court of Canada has stated about the Law Society that “[a]ccess to justice is facilitated when clients seeking legal services are able to access a legal profession that is reflective of a diverse population and responsive to its needs.”
These parts of the “core mandate” are conveniently ignored by FullStop, regardless of the damage to lawyers, clients, and the public repute of the profession.
Notably, FullStop faces a ‘counter-slate’ this time known as the Good Governance Coalition. The Coalition looks to one-up FullStop’s vote efficiency. They are campaigning on restoring sound leadership to the professional regulator, and thereafter have pledged to impose reforms that ensure these elections are never again hijacked by partisan politics.
We will soon see whether ‘good governance’ prevails, or how long the Law Society can survive as a political institution, rather than a regulator rooted in public interest duties defined by law.
What we should also take from this spectacle is that it is a test. Those perfecting strategies to overtake smaller orders of government for extreme, narrow political agendas will be watching closely. If a constituency as learned as lawyers can be duped by misinformation and hypocrisy, how does any other elected body stand a chance?
Douglas W. Judson is a lawyer based in Fort Frances with Judson Howie LLP. The opinions expressed are his own. Connect with him at @dwjudson. A version of this article appeared in the Kenora Miner & News.