The results of the Ontario bencher election are a major setback // Editorial

Osgoode Hall
It’s hard to remain optimistic about the future of the profession

By The Editors

On Thursday May 2nd, 2019

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The results of this year’s bencher election are an enormous disappointment. The legal profession in this province has handed a decisive electoral victory to a block of candidates that campaigned together on a single-plank platform: to abolish the statement of principles.

Why did this group of lawyers devote so much energy to one issue? Let’s start with some brief background. Over the past two years, the Law Society of Ontario has required all lawyers to confirm, in their annual report, that they’ve written a personal statement that acknowledges their obligation to promote diversity and inclusion. In our view, that’s not so horrible. In fact, asking the profession to consider, once a year, how it can help combat racism sounds like a good idea.

Not everyone agrees with that sentiment. Case in point: the block of bencher candidates who ran on a pledge to eliminate the statement of principles. On its website, this group argues that the new requirement is a clear violation of freedom of expression: it forces every lawyer to “comply” with the Law Society’s “prescription of what to say and what to think.” The group promises that, once in power, it will make sure the Law Society “gets out of the business of controlling the thoughts and speech of its members.” That turned out to be a winning pitch. Every lawyer who signed onto that platform — there are 22 of them — is now a bencher.

So what comes next? It shouldn’t be necessary to repeatedly point this out, but racism is a serious problem that pervades the legal profession. In 2016, the Law Society published a detailed report on this subject. It showed that 40 percent of racialized lawyers “identified their ethnic/racial identity as a barrier to entry to practice” and a further 43 percent “identified ethnic/racial identity as a barrier/challenge to advancement.” And in 2017, a separate survey showed that one in five of the province’s articling students had received unwelcome comments on the basis of their identity, which could include, among other things, gender, sexual orientation or race. Our reporting has often centred on the topic of race. We’ve spoken to racialized lawyers about their personal experiences with discrimination. And we’ve written about the historical underpinnings of the profession’s long-standing diversity problem. So yes, racism is real. And it warrants action.

The newly elected slate of benchers, who intend to axe the statement of principles, have made the following claim online: “Not a single lawyer contributing to this website condones racism or wants to see a homogenous profession.” We’re glad to hear it. But we need leaders who will actively advance diversity and apply real pressure on lawyers to improve the culture of the profession. The next cohort of benchers have made it clear that this important cause will not be a priority.

As a magazine, we have tried to celebrate the best of the legal community, believing that, deep down, we are making progress. The results of the bencher election, however, feel like a genuine step backward.

And yet, we will not abandon the push for progress. We have always sought out lawyers who champion diversity and who work to increase access to justice. That mission will not stop. It is more important than ever to find the true trailblazers in this profession and amplify their voices. It’s time to get back to work.