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Lawyers reject bureaucratic language in new bylaws at law society AGM

By Precedent

On Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

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At the Law Society’s annual general meeting last month in Toronto, lawyers took turns expressing their outrage over changes to bylaws that classify them as “licensees” rather than as “members of the Law Society” or “barristers and solicitors.”

A group of lawyers brought a motion to restore the traditional terminology used to refer to lawyers in the bylaws. They also demanded that the traditional Barrister’s Oath be restored and not be administered to paralegals.

At issue are changes to the bylaws that were made after the provincial government introduced the Access to Justice Act in 2006, which delegated the responsibility for regulating paralegals to the Law Society. In several parts of the new bylaws, the word “licensee” was adopted to refer to lawyers and paralegals collectively.

Lawyers spoke passionately against combining lawyers and paralegals — one lawyer referred to it as “lowering the bar.” The motion calls the changes “demeaning,” and suggests they were made without the consent of the Law Society’s members. Another speaker was disappointed that it is no longer possible to be disbarred: now you can only have your licence revoked.

The greatest outrage was saved for changes to the Barrister’s Oath (whose words have been uttered by lawyers for over a century) which has now been replaced with a rewritten oath that is virtually the same for both lawyers and paralegals. The Law Society did not consult its members on this change.

“It’s a horrible situation,” says Mary Boyce, an immigration and criminal lawyer who brought the motion forward. “The Law Society very unwisely agreed with the government to take over the regulation of paralegals … Most of us assumed it would mean there would be a separate set of regulations. Instead, the benchers directed the bureaucracy to rewrite the bylaws … such that we would all be treated the same, which was staggering.”

Law Society bencher Judith Potter says the discussion at the AGM shows “the growing awareness of the bar as to what it means to have paralegals regulated by the Law Society.” She acknowledges that this is a complicated issue and that the Law Society needs to do more to communicate with its members on the subject. “There is a place for paralegals and they definitely need to be regulated,” Potter says, “but we need to keep this in perspective. We don’t need the dumbing down of lawyers to accomplish that.”

Paralegals spoke against the motion, arguing they must be held to the same standard as lawyers. One paralegal reassured the crowd, “We are not here to overtake lawyers.” The motion passed 54-40. Convocation has six months to consider the motion, and is not bound by the vote taken at the AGM. Ontario is the first jurisdiction in North America to regulate paralegals.