When Do We Need to Change?


When Do We Need to Change?

This spring, I had the privilege of talking to lawyers across the province about the regulation of our profession, Harry Cayton’s recommendations for changes at the Law Society, and the government’s move toward a single regulator for legal professionals. As you might expect — and will see in our final report — there was a diversity of opinions and reactions.

One notable theme was the principle of change itself, and how we know when change is right, good, or even necessary. Are we changing for the sake of change alone, or are we actually improving things? Are we relying on concepts of “tradition” and “usual practice” because they retain meaning and value today, or because they are familiar and comfortable? Are we resisting specific changes for legitimate reasons, or are we resistant to any change?

Consider section 3 of the Legal Profession Act: “the Law Society must uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice, which includes the fundamental tenet of ensuring the independence of lawyers.” Unlike any other profession, lawyers must be free to challenge government and act contrary to its interests. An independent Bar is the source of an independent judiciary, who also must be free to hold government accountable and rule against it. This must not only be true, but be seen to be true. Can this need be met by changing the way we’re governed, or is self-governance the best and most effective way to maintain this independence? Harry Cayton’s report suggests that self-governance is an outmoded tradition, but his assessment didn’t consider the unique role of lawyers and the legal profession.

What about access to justice? Every day, we see the access to justice issues in dealing with our clients and the courts. Our tradition of pro bono practice is not enough. Government funding for Legal Aid is insufficient to meet all needs, particularly in the family law realm. I hear regularly from frontline Legal Aid lawyers who are effectively providing pro bono services to Legal Aid clients every day, because the tariff simply doesn’t cover the breadth of services required. A robust, fully-funded legal aid system is our best and most essential tool to ensure access to justice.

But we have to look beyond legal aid and pro bono. The Law Society has taken steps to address these unmet needs through its Innovation Sandbox. Lawyers are offering legal coaching and unbundled legal services. Access Pro Bono recently launched the Everyone Legal Clinic (“ELC”) (of which CBABC is a proud Founding Service Partner); not only will the ELC expand the availability of pro bono legal advice in BC, it offers an alternative entry path to our profession. What more can we do? And do we ensure that any solutions developed provide meaningful access to justice — not just service, but service that meets quality standards?

When we look at how we conduct the business of law, are we ensuring access to our profession and the best service to our clients, or is change needed? We know that there is a financial barrier to entry into our profession; are we working to dismantle it? Programs like the ELC and the UVic Law Co-op program can help, but so would student loan forgiveness and ensuring that articled students earn a living wage. We know that BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ law students and lawyers face barriers to entry and in practice; are we working on a daily basis to dismantle individual or systemic barriers that not only impact our colleagues, but also our clients? Are our traditions helping or hindering us?

Whether good or bad, change is uncomfortable. It pushes us out of our comfort zone. It makes us question our own actions and behaviours, along with often long-held values and assumptions about ourselves, our profession, and our communities. While it’s true that many see our profession as traditional and resistant to change, we are making changes. Lawyers should be proud of the work we have done and continue to do. That’s how we’ll ensure our profession lives up to the fundamental values underlying the need for self-governance: independence, integrity, access to justice, and loyalty and service to our clients.

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