29th May 2024

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Destroying Law Society of B.C. doesn’t advance access to justice

6 min read

Opinion: Proposed legislation undercuts the voice of the elected members of the bar who presently govern the profession and places power in the hands of a “single legal regulator” sprinkled with government appointees

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Premier David Eby’s government seems bent on domination. Not world domination, but the next best thing. Domination of every industry and profession in our province. And it’s time to push back.

The latest example of this government’s desire to put everything under its thumb is Bill 21. This proposed legislation aims to eliminate the Law Society of British Columbia, which has existed since 1869; undercut the voice of the benchers, the elected members of the bar who presently govern the profession and protect the public; and place power in the clutches of a “single legal regulator” sprinkled with government appointees.

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What a great idea. Right up there with throwing a rock at the hornets nest under your porch.

I will spare you the math behind the composition of the proposed new board. Lawyers get mixed in with notaries, paralegals and, you guessed it, government appointees. Initial board members appoint further board members. Like most things the government touches, it’s not exactly a model of simplicity or efficiency. But the thrust of the proposed changes is clear. Independence of the bar will be out. Government control will be in. Let the politicization of our province’s legal system begin.

Eby, with his 17 months experience as premier, has decided to sweep away 155 years of the accumulated wisdom of the Law Society of British Columbia. Such a drastic move must have followed extensive consultation, right? Wrong. Although-Attorney General Niki Sharma is now on a whirlwind speaking tour discussing legislation that has already been drafted and tabled. I might have this wrong, but isn’t consultation supposed to happen before a decision is made, not after?

I doubt the average member of the public sees this move as an existential threat to their daily lives. There is rent to pay, mortgages to cover, and the Canucks actually have a chance of winning this year. I’m not sure the public always appreciates the importance of having a strong, independent legal profession — until they need a lawyer to fight for them, that is.

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This power grab doesn’t just affect lawyers. It affects you. At some point you may need to push back against government overreach in health, education, housing, or any number of other areas. You will need a strong, independent lawyer to stand up for you and your rights. Not someone controlled by the government.

The independence of the bar is essential to a functioning legal system and the rule of law. But as important as they are, let’s put lofty principles aside for a moment, and boil things down to basics. The independence of the bar is important not because it benefits lawyers, but because it benefits you — the people who need our help.

For a stark example, look at Hong Kong. One of the first things the government did after charging the publisher of a pro-democracy newspaper was to deny him his lawyer of choice and insist on one approved by the government. Any guesses on why they pulled that move?

In case you were wondering, it isn’t just lawyers (I am one of them) who see this power grab for what it really is. Both the B.C. Conservative Party and B.C. United have voiced their strong opposition to the proposed legislation.

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Mr. Rustad described it as “a bill to undermine the independence of lawyers and politicize B.C.’s legal system” as part of Mr. Eby’s “authoritarian top down approach, with a lack of transparency and next to no consultation.” The B.C. United described it as “a profound threat to the independence of our legal system … an unprecedented move … that undermines the administration of justice in B.C. and erode[s] the checks and balances essential for a free and democratic society”.

Pretty strong words. From voices across the political spectrum. Makes you think there might be something there.

You may not feel the negative effects of this proposed legislation right away. But you will, subject to serious amendments, a change in government or the inevitable court challenge that is coming — a court challenge that will cost millions of dollars of your tax money to pay for years of litigation. Money that could be used to build schools for your kids, hire family doctors for your parents, or make sure there are enough ambulances to take you to the hospital in an emergency.

I suspect anyone who opposes this legislation will be painted by the government as just looking out for number one. NIMBY by another name. What right-minded person could oppose access to justice and diversity? But despite the government’s talking points, the legislation is not about those things. Things which the Law Society has already been addressing, for example, through its Innovation Sandbox,” a program that explores innovative ways of providing legal services to benefit the public. Things which the government could address by properly funding legal aid by using the hundreds of millions of dollars it collects every year from taxes on legal fees for their stated purpose. Now that would support access to justice.

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This legislation is about cold, naked government power. And to heck with anyone who gets in the way. Just ask doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, or anyone who doesn’t want a highrise built next to their kid’s elementary school.

The government is dressing up the legislation in its Sunday best. Grandiose statements all around. But don’t believe the hype. Buzzwords don’t change Coke into Pepsi, or government overreach into sound policy. Destroying the Law Society does not advance access to justice or diversity one bit. They can be addressed without government control, within the system we already have. It’s a system that has made real changes to better serve the people of British Columbia, and is committed to doing more.

But all is not lost. There is another way forward. If this government is willing to come back from the brink, they will have a willing partner in the legal community. But if it persists in this attempt to destroy the independence of the bar it should expect a response. A response in court. And, if need be, at the ballot box. The ability to defend our clients’ interests, your interests, demands nothing less.

Matthew Nathanson is a criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver.

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