What do the benchers at the Law Society of Ontario actually do?

As the bencher election draws near, much of their work remains mysterious
As the bencher election draws near, much of their work remains mysterious

On April 30, the legal profession in this province will make a critical decision: it will elect the next slate of benchers who, over the next four years, will lead the Law Society of Ontario. These elected officials assume a heavy set of responsibilities. They preside over disciplinary hearings and set the rules that govern the lawyer-licensing process. They also launch programs that help to improve the profession. It’s in part because of previous benchers, for instance, that the Law Society offers free mental-health support to lawyers and their families.

And yet, as the election draws near, much of this work is mysterious. For instance one of the most common — and most longstanding — misconceptions about the organization is that the Law Society represents the interests of lawyers. That’s not the case. It represents members of the public — by, say, protecting them from unethical lawyers or helping them access legal advice in a clear, affordable manner. “That is certainly confusing at times,” says Malcolm Mercer, the treasurer of the Law Society and a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “When lawyers cast their votes in the bencher election, they may naturally expect the people they’re voting for to represent their interests. But we don’t represent the profession — we regulate it.”

This is an important distinction. As Mercer points out, lawyers often lobby the Law Society to adopt policies that fall outside of its mandate. During most bencher elections, for instance, some voters call on the Law Society to cap (or slash) law-school enrolment. Their argument is simple: the legal job market can’t support the annual influx of new lawyers. But the employment of junior lawyers is not a matter of the public interest. “There’s nothing in the Law Society Act that authorizes us to be a market regulator,” says Mercer. “Our job is to ensure that standards are met among licensed people, not that there should only be a certain number of them.” So if bencher candidates campaign on curbing enrolment at law schools, take note. They are pursuing a policy objective that, even if they win, they won’t have the power to enact.

So what issues do fall within the mandate of the Law Society? Consider how Isfahan Merali, who was elected as a bencher four years ago, has spent her time in that role. Along with other benchers, she helped the Law Society launch a mental-health strategy. And she also sat on a special review panel that explored how the profession can better serve Indigenous communities in a culturally appropriate manner.

Ahead of the election, Merali encourages voters to familiarize themselves with each candidate’s platform and website. “Look for people who will be responsive to the needs of the public,” she says. “Those are the ones who will make our profession as great as it can be.”

This story is from our Spring 2019 Issue.

Illustration by Alina Skyson