By Aidan Macnab for Canadian Lawyer Magazine
Five years ago, Scott Morishita noticed a troubling shift in the prevailing attitude toward democratic institutions. As someone who closely followed US politics, where the phenomenon was more acute, he was concerned about the declining public trust.
At the time, Morishita was in-house at the Municipal Insurance Association of British Columbia and wanted to build a greater connection more broadly with the profession.
The legal profession was also embroiled in the Trinity Western controversy. In June 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decisions of the BC and Ontario law societies to deny accreditation to the private, Christian university’s proposed law school because of a covenant that required students and faculty abstain from sex outside of a heterosexual marriage.
For a member of the LGBTQ2s+ community, the Trinity Western affair highlighted the lack of people like him in leadership roles, whether as law society benchers or in the CBA.
“It was time,” he says. “We need to step up. Because if we don't, these sorts of things are going to continue to happen.”
The confluence of all these factors led Morishita to seek broader engagement with the profession. He got involved with the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch, beginning in 2018 with a run at the CBA BC Branch’s provincial council, where he served as elected representative for Vancouver County from 2018 to 2022. Having spent his career focused narrowly on a particular legal practice area, the experience revealed the larger issues affecting the legal profession and society as a whole. He ran for the CBABC board and then the 2nd vice president, and he recently assumed the role of president of the CBABC.
Morishita plans to use the platform to highlight two main priorities: mental health and the legal profession's independence.
The BC government is in the process of creating a single regulator for lawyers, notaries, and paralegals. The province has outlined its plans for “modernization” in an intentions paper, and Morishita expects legislation to follow in the fall. The main concern for him and CBABC is that the government has not clarified what the composition of the future regulator will be. He says the majority of the regulator’s members must be lawyers. Otherwise, the BC bar will lose self-regulation.
“Whether it's criminal defence cases, whether it's people who are suing the government, whether they're trying to challenge government decisions, or whether there's an allegation of a breach of someone's Charter rights – it's really critical that lawyers can advocate for their clients without having a concern that their regulator is not independent.”
Morishita adds that if lawyers are not independent, neither is the judiciary because judges are selected from the bar.
“It would represent a fundamental shift in how lawyers are regulated in this country,” he says. “I think other lawyers in the country need to be aware of this because if that happens to us, it could happen to others. And that's extremely problematic.”
Last year, the CBA released the findings from the first comprehensive national study on mental health in the legal profession.
“Some of the findings were quite alarming.” But he adds: “For a lot of us, they weren't necessarily surprising.”
Morishita’s personal experience with mental health challenges occurred during law school and articling. He had to take a medical leave and thought that taking time away so early on would be career-ending. This was 16 years ago, before removing the stigma around mental health was a familiar theme. “We never had courses or seminars about wellness and mental illness. It was a fairly different world,” he says.
“The study is clear.”
The CBABC has several ongoing programs for mental health awareness. This year, the organization is setting up a special committee to “take a deeper dive” into the findings of the CBA’s national mental health study, says Morishita.
Beyond that, he will also share his experience and his thoughts on how the profession needs to change to address the “pandemic” of mental illness.
Morishita takes over the role of president from Aleem Bharmal, and he plans to carry on Bharmal’s work on and Reconciliation.