The Law Society of Ontario has lowered the annual fees for every lawyer in the province. And it’s managed to do so without cutting services. Instead, the regulator has put the brakes on funding for future programs.
In a budget that passed last October, the current cohort of benchers reduced this year’s fees (which were due on March 2) by $135, or about six percent, to $2,066. Non-practising lawyers paid half of that amount, or $1,033, and retired lawyers paid a quarter (about $516). Paralegals also saw their fee drop by $109 to $1,006.
These fees make up close to three-quarters of the Law Society’s $139-million budget. These funds allow, among other things, the Law Society to investigate complaints from the public and research how to improve access to the profession.
Despite the reduction in revenue, no programs have been eliminated. “This isn’t a budget which has achieved its result by reducing what the Law Society does,” says Malcolm Mercer, the treasurer of the Law Society and counsel at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “It achieved its results by changing how the Law Society budgets.”
One major change is related to contingency spending. The Law Society sets money aside each year so it has the flexibility to approve new programs. In its latest budget, it has trimmed the size of the contingency fund from $1.5 million to $1 million. “What that practically means,” says Mercer, “is that if things are approved outside of the budget, outside of the contingency, they will have to wait until the next fiscal year to get started.”
In the previous budget, the Law Society had allocated $370,000 to cover a potential raise to bencher pay. Benchers must volunteer 26 days of their time before they’re paid for their work. The Law Society considered shortening or removing the 26-day period. “But it didn’t happen,” says Mercer. “So the 2020 budget doesn’t include that.”
The last major change was to the Law Society’s awareness initiative. In 2018, it launched an advertising campaign; the tagline “Our society is your society” appeared on billboards, public transit and the radio. The Law Society has no plans to continue this campaign, saving $600,000.
Though the Law Society’s budget notes a reduction of 6.5 employees, including three working in equity initiatives, no one was fired. “There are always vacancies and always hirings of vacancies,” says Mercer. “This isn’t a staff-cutting budget.” In any case, the impact will be small; the organization has more than 600 employees.
Omar Ha-Redeye, the executive director of the Durham Community Legal Clinic, supports the new budget. At small firms, he says, annual fees are a significant expense that is often passed on directly to their clients. “One of the greatest barriers to access to justice,” he says, “are the financial and regulatory impediments that are imposed by the Law Society.”
But licensing candidates will not receive a discount on their fees. To go through the province’s licensing process will continue to cost $4,710. Part of this fee pays for the articling system, but the bulk of it goes toward the Law Practice Program. “Instead of saving lawyers $135, we could have reduced licensing fees by half,” says Nima Hojjati, a second-year associate at Swadron Associates. “I’m frustrated that this money was used the way it was.”
Morgan Watkins, the president of the Students’ Law Society at the University of Toronto, argues that students are largely excluded from this conversation at the Law Society. In her view, the profession as a whole should help fund the licensing process. Otherwise, it places an undue burden on new calls. “The costs should not be borne only by young lawyers,” she says, “who are just starting their careers.”
To Mercer, this critique is off base. “We’ve required lawyers to pay more annual fees than they needed to,” he says. “It makes sense to return that to them and not to someone else.”
This is a story from our Spring 2020 Issue.