The Law Society of Ontario’s statement of principles could be the battleground on which this benchers’ election will be fought.
Some say the LSO’s requirement that licensees “create and abide by an individual Statement of principles that acknowledges [a lawyer’s] obligation to promote equality diversity and inclusion generally and in [a lawyer’s] behaviour towards colleges, employees, clients and the public” is a legitimate social justice initiative. Others say the requirement amounts to an intrusion on freedom of speech.
Convocation approved the SOP in December 2016. Pro-SOP candidates say the statement is an appropriate response to challenges facing racialized licensees, as outlined in an LSO report. Anti-SOP candidates disagree. Jared Brown, lead counsel at Brown Litigation in Toronto, says the LSO must “get away from the mandated and compelled values test that is the statement of principles.”
Both sides are marshalling forces on their respective websites.
Corey Shefman, an associate at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP in Toronto, is behind statementofprinciples.ca. He is careful to point out that the site is intended as a resource to identify candidates who support the SOP, not a showcase for a bloc or slate of candidates.
“I created statementofprinciples.ca as a service to Ontario lawyers who wanted to be sure that the candidates they’re voting for support EDI and the SOP,” he says. “The candidates didn’t ask to be on the site — it’s just about making voting easier by giving people a place to find the information they’re looking for.”
To date, 43 lawyers and one paralegal are listed on the site.
“We’ve had tons of great feedback,” Shefman says. “Most importantly, a number of people have commented to me that they were planning on not voting this year because there were too many issues and not very good communication about the issues, but they found the site helpful and so they will be voting.”
Indeed, that’s the reason Shefman says he set the site up in the first place.
“We can’t be complacent in the face of bigotry,” he says.
The anti-SOP movement also has a website, stopsop.ca.
“We have 23 candidates on our slate including one paralegal,” says Bruce Pardy of Kingston, Ont., the law professor at Queen’s University who is the group’s media relations representative. “We may consider endorsing other candidates who are aligned on the SOP question.”
The site features an open letter to the LSO from one of the profession’s icons, Earl Cherniak of Lerners LLP, who makes no bones about his views.
“I am therefore advising you, to be clear, that I will not ‘sign the paper,’ not now, not ever,” he writes.
Pardy says stop-SOP is gaining momentum.
“Our list of public supporters is growing as people find their courage to stand up to the regulator, and a lot of people have been writing to us to express relief and gratitude that we are doing this,” Pardy says.
There has been a strong response, says Pardy.
“We are also receiving some vitriolic hate mail and accusations online that we are racist bigots,” Pardy says.
Both Shefman and Pardy are concerned that voter passivity could undermine the importance of the issue.
“Unfortunately, I suspect that a lot of people are sick and tired of the SOP discussion,” Shefman says. “That leaves only the most highly motivated folks, which tend to be people who oppose things.”
But people who support the statement of principles are doing something about it.
“I, along with a number of other dedicated Convocation watchers and candidates, are committed to supporting voter turnout,” he says. “I think the people who are most impacted by the EDI and Racialized Licensees Working Group will be very motivated to vote. At least I hope so.”
Pardy is of similar mind in his concern about voter turnout.
“It’s hard to say how much of a motivator the SOP will be,” he says. “Many lawyers often ignore bencher elections, but [they] may be paying closer attention this time. We hope they are.”