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Statement of principles shows lawyers still must fight for independence

As I was walking towards Osgoode Hall to attend the Law Society of Ontario’s June 27 Convocation, I could not believe that even in 2019, as a lawyer with a duty to be people’s voice in a supposedly free and democratic country, that I must fight for my own freedom of speech, thought, conscience and ideas.

In the meeting, what stunned me even more were the arguments in favour of the statement of principles requiring lawyers and paralegals to sign an acknowledgement and promise to “promote” equality, diversity and inclusion.

Pro-SOP benchers kept arguing that a mandatory SOP is not compelled speech, is not there to shape and control lawyers’ thoughts, conscience and ideas. Moreover, the LSO has a mandate to protect the public and because of that the LSO needs to enforce a “culture shift” and keep the mandatory SOP. While I agree that the LSO has a mandate to protect the public, the SOP is no protection and in fact detrimental to the public interest.  

Like a living tree, the public is organic and continuously bound to change through time. If lawyers are to protect the public – Individuals from all walks of life – lawyers need to remain absolutely independent in their thoughts, ideas and conscience. They need to be able to think outside of any potential box/ideology and speak freely. Lawyers should not be forced or encouraged to have a one-dimensional “culture shift” and adhere to a specific political ideology of the time regardless of whether that specific ideology is democratic, noble, positive, trendy or fashionable.

I believe that it is in the public interest to protect the independence of lawyers and to zealously guard the tenets of the rule of law. In a free and democratic society, lawyers are the public’s last resort for protection. Their ability to defend their clients’ interests depends upon their ability to think and speak freely.  That independence is threatened whenever the regulator demands that they adopt the regulator’s version of proper thinking.

One of the purposes of the package of EDI measures adopted by Convocation in December 2016 was to promote a “culture shift” in the legal profession. The very idea of the regulator shifting culture means that it seeks to influence the attitudes and beliefs of its members. That, in turn, means that the regulator must identify the values it wishes to promote, and find ways to make its members embrace those values and reject those it wishes to weed out. The premise of the EDI initiative is, indeed, that lawyers and paralegals should not think for themselves but must have their thinking supervised.

There is no independence in a society where lawyers are obligated to “promote” SOP today, “voluntarily” choose to “promote” SOP tomorrow or for years to come. They do not know how the future unfolds, or what the next “culture shift” required by the regulator might be. In such a regulatory system for lawyers, ultimately, through time, the public has no voice and in effect, the society would no longer be a free and democratic society.  

It was absolutely disappointing that the pro SOP group managed, procedurally, to avoid the main motion and have benchers cast their votes on whether SOP should stay or go, pushing an adjournment and postponing the debate for another day, sometime in July 2019.

Therefore, lawyers’ struggle to maintain their independence, freedom of speech, conscience, thoughts and ideas, in order to do their jobs and protect the public, shall continue. However, as a female visible minority, first generation immigrant to Canada and above all as a lawyer, who believes that her fundamental role is to be the voice of people (clients), I am hopeful that the LSO benchers will manage to maintain our freedom and independence.