The Law Society of Ontario’s June board meeting could determine both the fate of the next treasurer and of the hotly debated statement of principles requirement.
Treasurer Malcolm Mercer says two benchers have brought a motion to repeal the requirement that lawyers create a statement of principles, which would be heard at the next scheduled Convocation on June 27. Also on the agenda for the day is the start of the election process, which could result in either the re-election of Mercer or the election of opponent Chi-Kun Shi.
The result of the meeting could have a longstanding impact. As the law society wraps up its 2015-2019 Strategic Plan, the next treasurer will preside over the creation of the law society’s goals through 2023, Mercer says.
Twenty-two of the benchers say they will vote for Shi, who ran for her seat as bencher on a slate that opposed the statement of principles, a document that each lawyer is required to create that states their “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in . . . behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public.”
“During the bencher election, many lawyers made a point to tell us that they thought the [law society] had lost its way, that it had become distant and elite and oblivious to the views of its members. They asked us to change that,” says Chi in an email to Law Times. “It is time for someone from the outside to lead the change that is needed, to allow the law society to find itself again.”
Mercer, unlike first-time bencher Shi, has been entrenched in the daily ins and outs of the law society for years. He says he has held leadership roles in the LSO in policy and adjudication for the last eight years and that he has called on that experience in his work as treasurer.
Over the last year, the law society formed a group to look at the role of technology in law and has finalized decisions around alternative business structures, governance and licensing rules. Mercer also says there has been progress on incorporating paralegals into family law and creating plain-language documents for fee arrangements.
“Much of the work of the last year was completing and making advances on projects which were already underway. With the election coming up, it was important, in my view, that we wait for the newly elected benchers before we took significant new steps in new directions. It’s important the newly elected bench participate in strategic planning,” says Mercer.
Mercer says he plans to spend one-on-one time with benchers over the next month to discuss the role of treasurer, including his vision for the future of the law society.
“I believe it will be a real challenge to have benchers work together as Convocation collectively,” Mercer says.
Shi is no stranger to controversy, and her supporters said in a press release that she “is unflinching in her commitment to the principle that everyone deserves able and committed legal representation no matter how unpopular the client or the cause.” The slate of benchers noted her work on cases such as “the family of Steven Chau, a schizophrenic who suffered a psychotic episode during which he killed his wife and two young children; to grocer David Chen in the Lucky Moose citizen’s arrest case; and to notorious holocaust denier Ernst Zundel when he was being deported from Canada.”
Like Mercer, Shi says she would like to meet with benchers individually. As a mediator, Shi also says the role of treasurer is one best suited to a candidate that will listen and find common ground.
“I aspire to let them know who I am and what I hope to achieve so that they may make up their own minds with as complete a picture as possible,” says Shi.
Shi, who says she has litigated corporate governance issues, also says she would like to focus on fiscal responsibility and the needs of sole practitioners and small firms if elected. Mercer says that helping lawyers maintain competency after licensure is one of his priorities. He says it requires a particular skill and temperament to assist a large number of people in making decisions without imposing a conclusion.
“It’s a trick to lead without dictating,” he says.
He says the treasurer needs the experience and expertise to understand how both the law society works and how the justice system works.
“I think what is notable about being treasurer is that there are very real challenges in the administration of justice and in access to justice that the law society plays an important role in. The law society by no means is the only player — what we do is only part of the puzzle — but it’s a tremendously important puzzle. There are many people in Ontario who don’t see the justice system working for them. They are not always right, but they often are,” says Mercer. “I think we have to focus on access to justice and legal services and how the way we regulate affects that.”