Why We Should Defund the Law Society of Ontario
By far the funniest spending scandal in recent history is the credit card spending scandal of the Ryerson Student Union. There is no doubt that the slate that won the leadership positions in the RSU ran on a platform of social justice, but within a period of nine months, they ran up a credit card bill of $250,000.00 on questionable expenses including alcohol, food, nightclubs, Casino Rama and hotels. The crown jewel of these expenses has to be October 12, 2018 (a Friday night), when in a single night someone dropped $2,280.89 at EFS night club and $429.52 at a hotel. I could not help but laugh out loud when I read about that epic night because I have actually been to EFS nightclub in a booth on someone else´s dime and marginally enjoyed the atmosphere for what it was worth. Of course, I would never have spent my own money this way, but I did not mind spending someone else´s money one bit.
The point is so intuitive that every human being immediately knows it to be true that money is spent much more wisely when one is spending their own money as opposed to spending someone else´s. Spending other people‛s money often leads to a very unjust misallocation of resources – like taking money from mostly broke Ryerson students to pay for an epic night at a nightclub and hotel where, it can be safely concluded, the goals of improving social justice were not furthered in any way.
Another news story that has caught my attention in recent weeks is the #defundthepolice movement that emerged after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a sadistic police officer. Because it arose after an incident of police brutality, it could be associated with an anti-police sentiment, but it is important to state that it does not have to be. There is a lot to find compelling in 2020 about the #defundthepolice movement. The Toronto police budget is over $1 billion and is by far the biggest expense of the city. Police officers are some of the best paid public employees in the province. The police are often tasked to do things, like mental health intervention, that they are not really trained to do. A reallocation of resources to, for example, provide funds to community groups that have strategies about how to reduce crime or to employ social workers to do mental health interventions, makes a lot of sense and may even find support among many police officers. Even if police officers do not approve, they cannot ignore the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that medical experts and political leaders have asked all Ontarians to make do with less for the sake of public health.
Speaking of making do with less, it is getting increasingly difficult not to notice that this burden is not being shared equally between the private sector and our public sector colleagues. This is not a criticism of our public sector colleagues in any way, but merely an observation that must be discussed openly. At the same time as this unprecedented burden is being borne by those in the private sector, it is also important to remind people that the public image of a private sector lawyer is very outdated and badly out of step with reality. Many private sector lawyers, particularly those called to the bar in the last ten years, are deeply in debt and struggling to afford the hallmarks of what was once considered a dignified middle-class life, like owning a home.
As a response to this situation, Law Society Bencher Michael Lesage has brought forward a motion to refund licencing fees to lawyers and paralegals who have billed less than $5,000.00 per month during the pandemic. I support this idea in principle, but I think that it creates an unnecessary and expensive adminstrative component in forcing people to apply for the benefit and demonstrate their income and I also believe it does not go far enough in forcing governors of the Law Society to think about what is really necessary from the perspective of living through a global pandemic in 2020.
It is my contention that during these unprecedented times that the Law Society, just like the private sector, has to make do with less and that this is a matter of fundamental fairness. The Law Society should focus on its core mandate of ensuring the competency of all lawyers in the profession and investigating and prosecuting lawyers who have engaged in misconduct. There are other examples of essential programs, like libraries and a referral service for the public, that should also be maintained. Any non-essential projects should be put on hold or abandoned altogether, as should expenditures on frills like catering and wine. It is unfair for Law Society employees to be engaged in non-essential work while many private sector lawyers and paralegals struggle to pay rent and for the necessities of life. A fee reduction is necessary to allow those in power to reevaluate priorities from the perspective of what private sector lawyers are experiencing.
Between 2016 and 2019, the Law Society budget increased from $108.4 million to $137 million and annual dues for lawyers increased from $1,866.00 in 2015 to $2,201.00 in 2019. In 2020, for the first time in a long time, annual dues for lawyers were reduced from $2,201.00 to $2,066.00 per year. This is proof that the Law Society budget can be reduced without any meaningful interruption to the self-governing profession of law and that the trajectory of budget reduction should continue. A good starting point would be to reduce all lawyer fees by 20%, or $413.20 per year, and to budget accordingly. That is a very modest cut when considering what lawyers in the private sector are contending with. As anyone who has ever spent anyone else´s money can tell you, the money will be more wisely spent by us anyway.