Law Society to Debate Controversial Equality Oath in December

Ontario paralegals and lawyers are in heated debates over the merits of a new requirement by the Law Society to adopt a “statement of principles” acknowledging an obligation to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Last December, the Law Society benchers voted unanimously to adopt 13 recommendations by a committee called the Challenges Facing Racialized Licensees Working Group, which spend four years studying the impact of systemic discrimination on non-white lawyers and paralegals. Among those recommendations was the statement of principles.

By the end of 2017, all lawyers and paralegals in Ontario must create and agree to abide by an individual statement of principles, “that acknowledges obligation to promote equality, diversity and includion generally, and in your behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public.” There is no need to post the statement anywhere or send it to the Law Society; they simply need to report that they have fulfilled the requirement.

The Law Society has provided two template statements licensees can use, or they can create a new statement from scratch. There are no real requirements for how the statement should look, asides from, “a preamble explaining the grounds for and intentions of the statement, and a set of principles adopted to help achieve these objectives.”

It sounds simple, but the idea of a mandatory statement of principles has generated a lot of discussion and attracted some criticism. Some licensees have even made clear their intention to ignore the requirement.

Arguments Against the Statement of Principles

While there was some buzz about this new obligation when it was voted on last year, it has only recently come into mainstream focus. This is likely because of the approaching deadline (December 31) for licensees to put a statement in place.

Supporters of the requirement have called the critics a vocal minority, but it’s tough to gauge just how many lawyers and paralegals are engaged in the issue.

Many of the arguments against the statement of principles centre around the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Leonid Sirota of the Double Aspect Blog calls it a “totalitarian values test” that infringes on the freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. He also points out that the current lawyer rules of conduct don’t create an explicit obligation to promote diversity, equality and inclusion – only to uphold human rights laws and other rules related to equality. The same goes for the paralegal rules of conduct.

Law Society Bencher Joseph Groia has asked convocation to reconsider the requirement. He filed a motion last week requesting that conscientious objectors like himself be exempt from the requirement. It will be heard at the December convocation meeting, and it’s sure to be a lively one.

Arguments For the Statement of Principles

While there have been may voices in opposition to the statement of principles, some have come out to speak out in support. Jennifer Quinto argues in the Law News Times that it would not constitute a charter violation, and if it did, it would be saved as a justifiable infringement under s.1. In her words, “Requiring lawyers to confirm their human rights obligations is not deleterious, and in any event, it would be far outweighed by the salutary effects.”

Quinto herself served as part of the committee which recommended the statement of principles. She points out the urgency of addressing systemic discrimination in the legal profession, as lawyers and paralegals are meant to be the ones defending the values of equality, diversity and inclusion in our society.

The issue will be formally discussed at the December convocation, but for now, it remains a requirement for all lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.

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