Ontario law society repeals rule requiring members to commit to promoting diversity

The 361 University courthouse in downtown Toronto. File / Global News

TORONTO – The Law Society of Ontario revoked a rule Wednesday that required its members to spell out their commitment to promoting diversity, but the decision did not quell debate over what the organization can and should do to tackle discrimination.

In a meeting in Toronto, the organization’s board of directors voted 28-20 in favour of repealing the rule, with two members abstaining. Another motion that would have made participation voluntary failed, with 27 voting against and 23 in support.

Some board members expressed disappointment and frustration with the results and raised concerns about the message the decision would send to members and the public at large.

READ MORE: Rule requiring commitment to promoting diversity divides Law Society of Ontario

Scrapping the rule feels like a metaphoric “punch in the face” to racialized lawyers, litigator Atrisha Lewis said.

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Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer called it a “sad day,” adding the organization had just rid itself of a key mechanism to protect vulnerable people. “This is only the beginning of dismantling of equity initiatives at the law society,” he said.

Others reacted to the news on social media.

“As a profession that the public entrusts with upholding the rule of law, human rights and the cause of justice, our future depends on our ability to reflect the diversity of the public we serve,” the Ontario Bar Association said on Twitter.

“Time for this convocation to prove its concern with a required (statement of principles) was truly freedom of expression by delivering meaningful solutions to inequality in the profession.”

The requirement that lawyers create and abide by a so-called “statement of principles” acknowledging their obligation to advocate for equality and inclusion had stirred debate for months.

In their annual report to the law society, members had to confirm they had made and upheld such a statement, but did not have to disclose its contents to the regulator or public.

Those opposed to the rule argued it amounted to unconstitutional, compelled speech, and was beyond the jurisdiction of the regulator.

READ MORE: Black lawyer, Ontario’s law society settle racial-profiling complaint

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Supporters, meanwhile, said it was a small but significant step towards eradicating systemic barriers within the profession.

The rule was adopted in 2016 after it was recommended by an internal working group on tackling systemic racism and discrimination.

After Wednesday’s vote, board member Sidney Troister introduced another motion that would essentially require lawyers to acknowledge in their annual reports the existing rules of conduct for the profession, which include provisions on discrimination and human rights.

While it might be a “meaningless virtue statement” to some, it is an important signal to others, particularly racialized lawyers, he said.

Many of those who supported that motion said they believed it was inadequate but considered it better than nothing.

Others denounced the motion as contributing to “regulatory fatigue,” arguing they had not been given enough time to weigh the issue. Lawyer Sam Goldstein described it as being ambushed by political correctness.

That motion passed 27-18, with five board members abstaining.

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