The future of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Parental Leave Assistance Program will be decided next Thursday.
It hangs on the decision of Convocation, which will determine whether sole practitioners and lawyers in small firms will continue to receive the benefit during maternity leave.
The pilot program was implemented in 2009 after the law society’s retention of women initiative proposed giving new mothers modest funds to pay their overheads during materinty leave and enable them to return to practice.
“We are losing a significant number of women from the practice of law all together,” says Beth Symes, a member of the committee that proposed the program. “ And women leave the practice as a result of having children.”
Lawyers who can’t afford to maintain their practice during parental leave simply shut it down, she says.
Since it’s implementation, 50 to 70 beneficiaries received PLAP each year. Although some men received the benefits, the vast majority of recipients are women who had just had children.
PLAP beneficiaries receive $750 per week. On average, women in small firms and sole practitioners take a three-month maternity leave, Symes says, adding the assistance is barely “money in pocket.”
Symes says she is concerned the program might be nixed because it is running alongside the Employment Insurance Special Benefits, which provides eligible new parents 55 per cent of their average weekly net income in the prior year. In 2012, the maximum benefit was $450 per week.
But EI recipients are required to begin paying $800 in premium fees 12 months before they can claim benefits. That’s at least three months before women find out they’re pregnant, says Symes.
“Most women don’t plan their pregnancy well,” she says, adding adoptive parents are also not certain about the arrival of a baby a year in advance.
EI recipients are also required to wait two weeks before receiving benefits and must begin paying premiums for the rest of their working careers.
It may be a good deal for big firm lawyers who can afford to take 52-week long maternity leaves, says Symes, adding it’s not a viable option for self-employed and small firm lawyers who don’t get parental leave benefits.
The program is particularly important for the criminal defence bar, says Breese Davies, co-chairwoman of the working group on women in criminal law at the Criminal Lawyers Association. She says the criminal defence bar loses a significant number of women after about five years of practice.
“One of the reasons for the attrition of women from criminal defence work is the lack of support for women who want to start a family.
“PLAP is really the only program that’s there to support young women. [EI Special Benefits] is not an option for a person with any financial literacy.”
Beneficiaries interviewed about PLAP said they used the assistance to pay for their office rent, phones, and part-time assistance, Symes says.
“They could not have been more complimentary,” she says, calling PLAP “the most successful program we’ve had for women so far.