The Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA) has moved a motion at the annual meeting of the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) that calls on the LSO to do more to encourage lawyers to practice in underserved communities.
The motion, which will be put to a vote at the LSO’s May 10 annual meeting, cites longstanding concerns about the ‘greying of the bar’ in many parts of the province (i.e., the aging of the bar in many communities without new lawyers coming in to fill their shoes). In several regions, this is being observed in key practice areas, such as family law and criminal defence.
FOLA’s motion refers to the LSO’s statutory duty to the public “to act so as to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario” and calls on the LSO to develop and implement “financial and non-financial strategies and incentives for the purpose of encouraging lawyer licensing candidates and recently licensed lawyers to locate their practices in under-served communities.”
While the motion does not prescribe specific policy proposals, the recitals make reference to the uniform licensing program fees for new lawyers and equal annual fees paid by lawyers, which do not account for market needs, the economics of different practice environments, or the need to incentivize lawyers to move into needed areas of practice.
The motion also refers to the need to improve mentorship for newer lawyers, underscored by the recent work by the LSO’s Competence Task Force, and the ongoing policy development process on succession planning for small firms and sole practitioners. Both are areas which may provide opportunities to address the challenges facing under-served communities and a greying bar.
FOLA encourages licensees to participate in the meeting and vote in support of the motion. Licensees of the LSO can join the meeting through the Law Society Portal.
“This motion sits at the heart of the Law Society’s commitment to the people of Ontario. Its statutory principles and duties include facilitating access to justice for Ontarians, wherever they live, through the provision of highly skilled lawyers. Yet for many communities across the province, there is no one providing service in everyday areas of practice. We cannot have a fair and functioning justice system if the public’s access to it – and access to lawyers to help navigate it – varies wildly by postal code.”Douglas W. Judson, Chair, FOLA
“A lack of access to legal services is a significant barrier to justice, and so attracting and retaining talented young lawyers is of paramount importance in many regions throughout Ontario, including in the County of Frontenac. We are encouraged by the motion brought by the Federation of Ontario Law Associations and welcome the assistance that this initiative will provide to smaller centres.”Karla McGrath, President, Frontenac Law Association
“Family law and child protection law are areas of practice which serve vulnerable clients, including children, individuals in crisis, and those who have experienced domestic violence. We are seeing gaps in service in these practice areas across the province. In some communities there are no lawyers available to meet the level of demand; in other communities, family lawyers are not taking Legal Aid clients. These are serious access to justice issues, and we cannot rely on technology to fill the gap. Many people, and particularly the most vulnerable, need to meet with their lawyer face-to-face.”Lisa Johnson, President, Family Lawyers’ Association
“Ensuring Ontarians have access to lawyers helps fulfill our profession’s commitment to access to justice. Lawyers who know the communities they serve – whether geographic, racialized, or cultural – are better advocates for their clients. Developing strategies to encourage lawyers and new calls to practice in under-served communities provides opportunities to apply an equity lens to the economics of private practice and the licensing process.”Justin P’ng, President, Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (Ontario)
“Like many rural law associations across the province, Huron County is experiencing a greying bar. Many of our firms have experienced great difficulties in hiring and retaining younger lawyers to our practices. Our local law association can only do so much on its own to assist us in bridging this gap. If we are going to continue to meet the legal needs of the communities that we serve in the years to come, our profession needs to look at bringing forth some new policies that will encourage new calls to consider small and rural communities for their practice, and to assist those already practicing in these areas in retaining their younger lawyers. At Convocation we have recently engaged in new policies that have assisted in creating mentorship opportunities for new lawyers and succession planning assistance for senior lawyers, in response to the bar’s understanding of these emerging concerns in the profession. I am optimistic that our solutions to those challenges can also help to support under-served communities in the province. This is an urgent and growing access to justice problem in many parts of Ontario, which needs to be addressed before it is too late.”Virginia Schenk, President, Huron Law Association
FOLA is a non-profit organization that represents Ontario’s 46 county and district law associations.
Douglas W. Judson