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LSUC to consider statement of principles exemption

|Written By Alex Robinson
LSUC to consider statement of principles exemption
Joe Groia says the law society can continue to promote goals of diversity while respecting the freedom of lawyers by exempting those who will not sign a statement as a matter of their faith or conscience.

Bencher Joe Groia has asked the governing body of the Law Society of Upper Canada to reconsider a controversial requirement that lawyers adopt and abide by a statement of principles.

Groia filed a motion requesting conscientious objectors be exempt from the requirement, which obliges every lawyer and paralegal in Ontario to adopt a statement acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion. The statement of principles has faced vocal opposition from some legal scholars and lawyers since it was introduced by the law society this fall as part of an initiative to combat the barriers faced by racialized licensees.

Opponents have argued that the requirement imposes beliefs on lawyers and is contrary to the Charter.

Groia says the law society can continue to promote goals of diversity while respecting the freedom of lawyers by exempting those who will not sign a statement as a matter of their faith or conscience.

"The Supreme Court of Canada has said that compelled speech is undemocratic and the hallmark of a totalitarian state,” says Groia.

“No matter how much I personally support the goal of greater diversity, and I believe it is extremely laudable indeed, we cannot and should not ask any lawyer to be compelled to say something unless they choose to do so of their own free will.”

Starting this year, the law society will require lawyers to adopt such a statement and check a box on their annual reports to show they have done so. They will not have to submit the statement to the law society.

Some lawyers have already said they will refuse to comply.

LSUC Treasurer Paul Schabas has said the law society will send letters out to those who do not follow the requirement, but will not penalize non-compliance this year.

Convocation approved the statement of principles in December 2016 as part of a package of 13 recommendations seeking to battle systemic racism in the legal profession. 

In that meeting, Bencher Sidney Troister brought forward a motion asking the recommendations be considered separately, as he felt some of them — such as the statement of principles — were problematic, but still supported others. His motion was defeated by a vote of 31-19 with two abstentions.

The entire package was unanimously passed with three abstentions.

Troister applauded Groia’s new motion.

“This motion is very important,” Troister says. “It recognizes that diversity includes a diversity of opinion and a diversity of personal beliefs.”

Supporters of the statement of principles say the requirement is a necessary step in promoting a cultural shift and that it is simply an affirmation of what lawyers are already meant to abide by.

Bencher Raj Anand says the words in the requirement reflect existing obligations under the Human rights Code and the law society’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which hold lawyers have a “special responsibility” to advance equality.

“I am not surprised that we have heard from a small but vocal segment of the legal profession and other commentators about the words I am proud to have drafted and insisted upon, and which passed after a healthy debate at Convocation,” says Anand, who is a co-chairman of the law society’s Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group. 

Anand says the law society is concerned with lawyers’ actions and not their beliefs.

Quinn Ross, the president of the Ontario Bar Association, says the comments of some opponents have obfuscated the real issue, which is that equality, diversity and inclusion are fundamental to the future of the profession.

“If we lose site of that, we have let down ourselves and the public we serve,” he says.

“We can’t let that happen. I cannot find fault in confirming that the profession charged with the defence and advancement of equality, diversity and inclusion in society, has the obligation to do so in their own practices. We need to get on with this.”

A spokesman for the law society confirmed receipt of the motion, which will be brought before Convocation in December. 

  • Bencher elections

    A.N.
    Which Benchers abstained? Which Benchers besides the ones named also argued against imposing this Statement of Principles? Which Benchers were the ones who "opposed voting on the recommendations on a piecemeal basis [...][as] the package did not go far enough"? I need to know to make a fully informed decision as to which Benchers I will vote for in the next election, which Benchers' campaigns I will fund, and which Benchers I will lobby against.
  • Diversity for all?

    Don Moir
    Equality, diversity, and inclusion -- unless you're a prospective TWU law grad looking to practice in Ontario.
  • The requirement should be reviewed

    L
    I know someone in my office who is quite willing to obey the law and practise tolerance at every turn, but she has a very good point when she raises her religious objections to some of the requirements of promoting some of the types of diversity mentioned in the full text of the motion. This is especially true because the requirement goes beyond our professional lives and into our life beyond the workplace. For my part, I certainly do not want to be part of a body that will force my colleague to sign a document that is at odds with the teachings of her church. I too am concerned about the ability of the Law Society to force me to adopt principles, and not because there is anything wrong with these particular principles. If the Law Society can force me to adopt principles that are good, like these ones, it is not unthinkable that the Law Society might miss the mark in a future exercise and require me to adopt principles that are not so good. I am not prepared at this point to assume that the Law Society is infallible and incapable of error, and I would like to preserve an ability to think about what I believe. Although I am sure everyone is well meaning in this exercise, I believe that we are headed down the wrong path when we force statements of belief of the sort being put forward. Actions, of course, are quite another thing. We are all quite used to authority being exercised to tell us what we can and cannot do. I also think that this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot, since we seem to be free to put whatever caveats in our statement of principles that we think appropriate, so that we can water the principles down so that they mean very little. But I also wonder whether, after a few summers have passed, future filings will require us to enumerate what we have done to put these principles forward and to explain why if we have done nothing. Or perhaps we will have to post principles in our offices, or on our letterhead, or on our business cards. And of course, there will be more principles to add to the list all the time because there are a great many good causes that all deserve our attention. And how important is a declaration of principles when we are all forced to sign under the veiled threat of possible future discipline, which could, if taken to its logical end, result in the inability to work in our profession. I think most people will just sign the most benign of the two samples that were sent out, and go on from there, never giving it another thought beyond the time needed to check the box on the form. The members who think about it will amend the samples by adding an opening “subject to ....” and forms will be checked. And life will go on, without much really having been achieved.
  • The Future is Diverse

    Tom Lantern
    Thankfully this motion is doomed to fail. People want diversity and this "compelled speech" red herring isn't fooling anyone.
  • Obey, comrades! Or else!

    M
    Totalitarian to the core. Progressives have lost their damned minds.
  • How Lawyers Explain Resistance to Diversity

    Lee Akazaki
    Mr. Groia may be too young to remember a time when there was widespread prejudice against Italian Canadians and similar exclusion of Italian-Canadian lawyers from leading firms. (At that time, the famous nod to diversity was Justice Minister John Turner's nomination of Antonio Lamer to the Supreme Court, after which Mr. Turner went around telling people he had just appointed 'Tony Lamer from the Italian community.') Had Mr. Groia been called to the bar during that time, perhaps he would not have thought of diversity in terms of being a laudable goal. Instead, he might have considered the profession's resistance to diversity as a wrong that must be righted. Today, our profession's resistance to the recruitment and advancement of racialized lawyers, especially among the black and indigenous communities who suffer daily overt racism in Canadian society, is a wrong that must be righted. In 2017, we should not be debating the merits of diversity as a matter of personal opinion. Rather, we must recognize diversity as a fact of Canadian society and that the failure of the legal profession to accommodate this fact is the leading source of stress in the fabric of our legal system. As lawyers, our training and our mandate is that our personal opinions are immaterial to our more categorical duty to make the law work for everyone, not just ourselves.

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