The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada told hundreds of attendees at the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers conference that the entire legal profession needs to make a commitment to taking on pro bono work.
Justice Richard Wagner was in Toronto Feb. 23 to deliver remarks at the FACL conference, which attracted about 250 people to its daytime sessions.
“[W]e need lawyers to do more pro bono work,” said Wagner in a mid-day address at the conference. “I know this is a controversial statement. You know, I’ve heard what people are saying, in the media and on Twitter. This is not an easy issue, particularly in the context of the high tuition and bar fees . . . and I recognize that not all lawyers are in the same financial position or doing the same kind of work. Any policy response needs to account for this reality. But lawyers also have a responsibility to help solve the access-to-justice problem.”
Wagner was sworn in as chief justice of the SCC in December 2017.
In a Canadian Lawyer cover story published in November 2018, Wagner commented that “the main challenge [to the judicial system in Canada] is the access to justice,” a theme that was echoed in his speech this past weekend.
“All of you are in this room because you care about access to justice, because you know this matters — you’ve made a commitment to help and I applaud you for that,” he said.
“But those of you who are actively committed to access to justice should not have to shoulder the burden alone. Those of you working within your communities or areas like refugee or criminal law make incredible contributions, both paid and unpaid. In many ways, our society has come to rely on these contributions; that’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the people who need legal help.”
Wagner said there are “necessary legal services that only lawyers can provide.” He also said he was inspired to see lawyers taking on pro bono work “that doesn’t end up in the news.”
“Staffing community clinics, providing workshops at youth drop-in centres, supporting refugees with their immigration paperwork or helping low-income people. . . . We’ve got to encourage this trend,” he said. He encouraged those with big firms to step up as well.
“Those of you who work for large firms, especially, you’ve got to encourage this trend. Many of you have joined firms that take on pro bono work. Make sure those programs are maintained and expanded,” he said. “You have a voice where others don’t.”
Wagner also emphasized the need for the profession to have lawyers of different backgrounds when it comes to financial support.
“If people are to have confidence in the legal system, they need to see themselves represented in it,” said Wagner. “That’s only possible when people from all communities have the ability to become lawyers and practise in the areas they choose.”