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B.C. law society president Craig Ferris

B.C. law society seeks to bring ‘mental health out of the shadows’: president

Friday, February 07, 2020 @ 9:21 AM | By Ian Burns

The Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) is moving forward with a number of measures aimed at responding to mental health concerns in the legal profession.

Benchers adopted the recommendations contained in the second interim report of the law society’s mental health task force at their Jan. 31 meeting. The report outlined a number of steps, which included improving information sharing with B.C. law schools about mental health supports; developing a guide to remove non-stigmatizing language in all future law society publications and communications; and conducting a voluntary, confidential member survey exploring mental health and substance abuse in the profession.

Law Society of B.C. president Craig Ferris

President Craig Ferris said one of the law society’s primary duties to the public is to ensure a competent legal system, and part of that competence is “making sure we have lawyers who are healthy.”

“We were looking at a lot of the study information about just the rates of mental health issues in the profession within the U.S. and in Canada, as well as addiction issues,” he said. “We thought we needed to find a way to help people and destigmatize issues, so people can talk about it and obtain the help they need.”     

The task force’s report noted, in a study of American lawyers in 2017, researchers found that more than 36 per cent of respondents provided answers consistent with problematic drinking or dependence. Further, more than 60 per cent of lawyers reported experiencing anxiety issues over the course of their careers, while 45 per cent had experienced depression. A subsequent Canadian study commissioned by the Barreau du Québec found that 40 per cent of respondent lawyers were experiencing some form of psychological distress, and “burnout” rates approached 30 per cent in some practice areas.

Benchers also moved to remove the medical fitness questions in the law society admission program (LSAP), which asks whether an applicant to the profession has had a substance use disorder or any other condition which would impact their ability to function as an articling student. This follows up on a decision, made in December 2019, to amend language in the law society’s code of professional conduct, which imposed a duty on lawyers to report any evidence of mental instability which would have an impact on clients.

Ferris said, based on social science research, questions like the ones on medical fitness aren’t predictive of issues with a person’s practice.

“Some would say you are asking them so you can direct people toward assistance, but we haven’t been using the information in that way. We know people have been not going to treatment because they don’t want to answer yes on those forms,” he said. “The question itself is stigmatizing, it’s not providing us with the information we need, and it tends to cause people not to seek the treatment they need — so, we saw fit to remove it.”

Going forward, Ferris said the task force will be looking at implementing the recommendations, which includes a town hall with the profession. He said the moves were about “trying to bring the issue of mental health out of the shadows.”

“You learn about hearing from people about the challenges they’ve faced, and you see people you have dealt with in your daily life and you have no idea that they have had these challenges,” he said. “And when you see that and you personalize those issues, you get a much better understanding about their prevalence and the need for treatment, and what great things people can do once they get that treatment.”

In addition to adopting the recommendations of the task force, benchers also moved to combine their access to justice advisory committee with the legal aid task force to bring together the two mandates of those groups, with new terms of reference likely coming at the next bencher meeting, said Ferris.

“There have been some well-publicized improvements to legal aid in B.C. recently, but that task is not over,” he said. “But those two committees are sort of working towards the same goal, so we thought combining them was a better approach. it is just being redirected somewhat to combining that with our access committee because we thought that would provide some focus to it and the issues quite often overlap, and we didn’t want duplication.”

The next bencher meeting is scheduled for March 5.

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