TORONTO — A heated debate that has divided the Law Society of Ontario for months is expected to continue Wednesday as the organization’s board of directors considers scrapping a rule that requires its members to spell out their commitment to promoting diversity.
The board is meeting in Toronto to discuss — and potentially vote on — a motion to repeal the rule that calls for lawyers to create and abide by a so-called “statement of principles” acknowledging their obligation to advocate for equality and inclusion.
The measure was one of 13 recommendations issued in 2016 by an internal working group on tackling systemic racism in the legal profession.
But some argue the requirement goes too far and, earlier this year, a slate of candidates was elected to the board after campaigning on a promise to revoke it.
They argue the rule imposes values on lawyers and amounts to unconstitutional, compelled speech.
Supporters of the measure, meanwhile, say it is a small but important step towards eradicating systemic barriers and builds on lawyers’ existing obligations without encroaching on their rights.
The issue was first debated at a meeting in June, along with a second motion to amend the rule so that participation becomes voluntary.
Many of those who oppose the rule also condemn the voluntary option, saying it flouts the results of the election and raising concerns that the law society would keep records of those who opted in or out.
“This remains a political litmus test and a symbol of submission to ensure lawyers and paralegals are in conformance with the currently fashionable ideology of (equality, diversity and inclusion), which has become almost a religion in some circles,” lawyer Lisa Bildy wrote in a letter to the society before the June meeting.
“The law society has no authority in its governing statute or otherwise to dictate its members’ political values, regardless of how laudable or seemingly uncontroversial they might be.”
Some argued the law society should focus on regulation and discipline instead of these types of measures.
“(The law society) should stop trying to tell lawyers what to think. It has been suffering from ‘mission creep’ for decades,” tax lawyer David Sherman wrote.
Others wrote in to support the rule, arguing members aren’t required to make their statement of principles public or even share it with the law society, nor are they penalized for failing to comply.
They noted the law society received legal advice before implementing the measure that found it constitutional and within the organization’s jurisdiction, and stressed the importance of working towards a more inclusive profession.
“In order to move forward as a profession we must try to address the barriers that affect racialized licensees instead of overturning the progress that had has been made to date,” wrote Aaron Bains, president of the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto.
“We urge you to reflect on these issues and to resist undoing the progress of the past several years.”
Lori Anne Thomas, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, wrote that “equity, diversity and inclusion is not controversial to strive for as a profession that serves a diverse public.”
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press