Civility in the Time of COVID-19


Civility in the Time of COVID-19

No one is untouched by the current global pandemic but as lawyers, we must rise above it. In swearing the Barristers’ and Solicitors’ Oath, we each agreed to conduct ourselves truly and with integrity, and to uphold the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of all persons. Our Canons of Legal Ethics instruct us that, “[a] lawyer is a minister of justice, an officer of the courts, a client’s advocate and a member of an ancient, honourable and learned profession.” It is a lawyer’s duty to be candid and courteous in relations with other lawyers, and to demonstrate personal integrity. We must have the ability to disagree without being disagreeable, as we forcefully advocate our client’s position.

While we are duty bound to act professionally, conducting oneself in a civil and professional manner is more than just the right thing to do. As a lawyer, your personal reputation is arguably your most valuable asset. William Shakespeare had it right when he commended lawyers for remaining true to their clients, themselves and their profession, observing in The Taming of the Shrew: “And do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”

The Honourable Madam Justice Rosalie Abella stated in her influential 1999 speech entitled, Professionalism Revisited: “… there are three basic values which merge in a good lawyer: a commitment to competence, which is about skills; a commitment to ethics, which is about decency; and a commitment to professionalism, which transfuses the public interest into the two other values.” She continued that while there was a crisis of neither competence nor of ethics — most lawyers having both in laudable abundance — the same could not be said of the spirit of professionalism. Justice Abella posited that one explanation for this is that we have moved from a “... society governed by the rule of law to being a society governed by the law of rules.” We have become preoccupied with process. She discussed that despite profound changes in how we travel, live, govern, and think, we still conduct civil trials almost exactly as we did over a century ago. She questioned, rhetorically: “Any good litigator from 1906 could, with a few hours of coaching, feel perfectly at home in today’s courtrooms. Could a doctor from 1906 feel the same way in an operating room?”

Until COVID-19, Justice Abella’s comment respecting our traditional courtrooms continued to stand true. Initially, the uncertainty of the pandemic forced the closure of our courts to all but emergency matters. The insufficiency of our outdated system was painfully apparent. Justice stakeholders responded immediately with innovation and experimentation, regularly increasing court operations as audio and videoconferencing capabilities expanded. As a result, we have realized durable changes that will increase the efficiency of our system and facilitate greater access to justice. But this is only the beginning. There is much more work to be done to streamline our processes and make justice more affordable.

With the evolution of our procedures, however, comes uncertainty and increased anxiety. This, in turn, can lead to short tempers and unprofessional conduct. Darwin’s theory of evolution is, at base, premised upon the principle that certain traits are favoured in an environment over others, resulting in modifications of populations by natural selection over time. In my respectful submission, one trait that will always be favoured in the legal profession is civility. So, when the current, uncertain climate is causing you to feel anxious and your temper flares, as the new CBABC President I urge you to pause and think of the age-old admonition, “act in haste, repent in leisure.” Proceed with the courtesy, respect, and pride worthy of our ancient and honourable profession. You will not regret it.