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Pro Bono Ontario rallies bencher hopefuls on funds

PBO seeks funding for help centres
|Written By Anita Balakrishnan
Pro Bono Ontario rallies bencher hopefuls on funds
Shalini Konanur has concerns over proposals for the Law Society of Ontario to fund Pro Bono Ontario.

Candidates for the Law Society of Ontario’s board are split on if and how a fee to support pro bono services should be incorporated into annual fees.

Late last year, Pro Bono Ontario came close to shutting down help centres in the three courthouses due to lack of sustainable funding, but it was able to continue operations after an influx from the private sector and the federal government.

Some candidates for the law society’s board, which elects new benchers on April 30, say the law society should provide a sustainable source of funding for PBO going forward, even suggesting a $25 levy on each licensee. Others question whether funding PBO may lead to unintended consequences, including bencher candidate Shalini Konanur, executive director and lawyer at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.

“I have a few concerns,” says Konanur, who, if elected, would like more information on the financial organization of Pro Bono Ontario before approving any funding. “It’s easy for all of us to say ‘Yes, the Law Society of Ontario should be a strong advocate of access to justice.’ It’s a little bit more difficult when you come to financial questions because the law society is not a funder, it’s a professional body. The question for me working in the clinic system is, ‘If the law society is going to get into the game of funding access to justice, are we also going to talk about funding Legal Aid supports?’”

Lynn Burns, founding executive director of Pro Bono Ontario, says she has been approached by bencher candidates and that she and the PBO’s board have been meeting with candidates to seek their support for Pro Bono Ontario’s funding.

Pro Bono Ontario will likely post a list of supportive candidates on its website and social media accounts, open to anyone that supports LSO funding for Pro Bono Ontario regardless of the structure or source of funding, she says.

“I’ve heard a lot of debate about whether a levy would hurt new calls or sole practitioners. There could be sliding scales — there are a lot of ways that they could funding to support Pro Bono Ontario,” says Burns.

Robert Shawyer, a bencher candidate, was inspired to run for office to be a voice for Pro Bono Ontario in Convocation. Although he does not support raising fees for licensees (which rose $18 to $2,201 for lawyers in 2019), he says would like to see $25 of each licensee’s existing fees redistributed specifically to Pro Bono Ontario.

“I absolutely in no way want to increase the fees — we are already charged too much for our licence on a yearly basis. . . . I’d actually advocate for a new fee structure that would be more flexible so that people, depending on their practice area, could pay reduced fee levels,” says Shawyer, principal of Shawyer Family Law & Mediation, a four-lawyer firm in Toronto. “I think a fee that’s paid from the fees lawyers already pay is the answer to the question of, ‘How do we best support Pro Bono Ontario?’”

Philip Horgan, a bencher candidate who is the proprietor his own Toronto-based firm, says he has dedicated hundreds of hours each year to pro bono work without working through Pro Bono Ontario. 

“I think I’m a bit of an advocate of letting lawyers make such choices as opposed to just imposing further fees. If lawyers wish to make donations to Pro Bono Ontario, good for them, let them take advantage of a charitable receipt and move forward. For folks like me who do pro bono work without it going through the umbrella of Pro Bono Ontario, I don’t think a forced commitment to one agency is the way to go,” says Horgan. “I don’t want to give the wrong impression — I’m quite supportive of lawyers providing pro bono services and being leaders in the public of providing folks with access to competent legal services and access to justice. But in this field, there are plenty of opportunities available without having the law society being the conduit.” 

Horgan says funding decisions must be viewed in the context of the LSO’s 2019 budget increase and the annual fee of $2,201 for lawyers. The Law Society of Ontario, which has a projected deficit of more than $8.7 million this year, budgeted a $50,000 allotment for Pro Bono Ontario, in addition to funding other external organisations, such as Ontario Justice Education Network and Innocence Canada.

“It’s kind of difficult for young lawyers, particularly, to provide that pro bono activity when they have to pay annual fees . . . just to hang up their shingle,” says Horgan. “I think that if we can be modestly careful about how the law society is funding its various operations, and perhaps take a hard look at why the law society’s reach has grown … perhaps we can provide some relief to lawyers to allow them to do more pro bono work.”

David Milosevic also decided to run for bencher specifically on the platform of securing funding for Pro Bono Ontario. He says he supports a voluntary “tick box” levy on licensees to support pro bono services, rather than across-the-board fee increases.

“What I noticed was that this pro bono issue is intimately linked to this larger question in this election: Where do we want this regulator to go — how do we see the regulator of the law society?” says Milosevic, a partner at Milosevic Fiske LLP in Toronto. “Then there are those who see a more robust mandate . . . where the law society also has a social purpose — it advances a social role for lawyers in society, the way we engage with the public and what our values are in doing so. Pro Bono comes down on the latter side of that argument.”

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