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Alberta law society president Kent Teskey

Alberta Law Society sees articling, lawyer cash flow as major challenges during pandemic: president

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 @ 9:14 AM | By Ian Burns

The Alberta Law Society has added its name to the organizations that have moved to hold their formal meetings using videoconferencing technology in light of the challenges poised by COVID-19.

The law society’s most recent board meeting, which was held May 14, was done through the Zoom platform. Law society president Kent Teskey said the process was “surprisingly functional.”

Law Society of Alberta president Kent Teskey

“We had adopted a policy for the board in February which said we were going to go video only for committee meetings to begin with, and that turned out to be reasonably fortuitous,” he said. “It is amazing the work of the benchers can continue very much unabated.”

Benchers dealt with a number of issues at the meeting, such as formalizing rule changes to suspend the mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) filing requirement for 2020 and 2021 (an issue which was discussed at the February board meeting) and move discipline matters related to the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education (CPLED) program, which provides bar admission training in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, to the CPLED organization itself.

The law society’s audited financial statements for 2019 were also revealed at the meeting. It shows an operating surplus in the general fund of $1,726,685, which was attributed to higher than anticipated practice fees and investment income. And Teskey noted benchers have “taken a hard look” at the budget going forward to see if cost savings can be found “because obviously there are some pretty uncertain times out there right now.”

“I think we are in early days, but we are thinking about budgets earlier than we might otherwise think about it here. I think the regulator has to adopt a philosophy of austerity in a period of time like this — you have to be careful with resources, but the work of a regulator persists in times of economic crisis, and often amplifies,” he said. “Custodianship and discipline matters go up, and there are wellness issues in the profession. So, the balance is making sure we are doing the work the public would expect a regulator would do but also we are doing it as efficiently as possible.”

Teskey said the benchers feel articling will be a “substantial challenge” in Alberta for the next couple of years and is an issue they are actively engaged in. He noted the law society recently increased its subsidy to the CPLED program to reduce tuition fees in the province to $2,500.

“The reality is when you are in an economically compromised situation, one of the things that may go earlier in your firm’s budget is articling students,” he said. “So, how do we try to encourage articling and continue to help students?”

The other thing the law society has been doing “pretty aggressively” is trying to think about how it can assist lawyers who may have cash flow issues, said Teskey. He noted the Alberta Lawyer’s Indemnity Association (ALIA)’s 2020-2021 annual levy has been reduced to $2,921, a 10-year low.

“But I think the true effects of the pandemic, from a medium to long-term perspective, won’t be realized until the fall,” he said. “So, I think we were smart in announcing a variety of things quickly and then keeping our powder dry until the fall to figure out what other steps we are going to have to take.”

Law Society of B.C. president Craig Ferris

The issue of COVID-19 was also tackled by the B.C. Law Society in a virtual town hall May 12. President Craig Ferris noted the law society there has implemented a number of measures to help lawyers, such as extending deadlines for indemnity fees and working with the courts and government to amend the procedures for swearing of affidavits. But he said one of the things that pandemic has done is highlighted the frailties and vulnerabilities in how justice operates in B.C.

“We have seen problems with moving around physical paper and the lack of the use of technology by many participants [in the system],” he said. “The reliance on the status quo in these situations has left the public vulnerable to a shutdown in the justice system.”

The fundamental question that comes out of the pandemic is what changes are going to be made permanent, said Ferris. He added that the situation has shown that remote commissioning of affidavits can be done with the use of technology and “I wouldn’t see any reason as to why that would change.”

“We need to make sure that we are using technologies to allow the greatest access that we can to both legal advice and the justice system. At our last bencher meeting I spoke to our benchers about how a pandemic could be a real impetus for permanent change and that our work, far from being on hold, is more urgent than ever,” he said. “The silver lining in this crisis is that it will unleash transformation which will hopefully for the future make us a quicker, more decisive, more innovative legal profession while maintaining our core principles. I am confident we will emerge from this as better, more nimble and more accessible lawyers.”

Teskey noted there is great potential for videoconferencing but things like Zoom “don’t allow you to put more issues into a courtroom on any given day.”

“I think that the profession and the courts have to be careful in viewing it as something that solves what is essentially a capacity issue,” he said. “Right now, the courts’ crisis is an issue of capacity that is getting worse on a monthly basis, because every month they are closed they are simply shoving things down the road. So, there an aspect to videoconferencing, but I would be somewhat cautious as to how far it can take you.”

The Alberta board also approved the date of Nov. 16 for the next bencher election. The formal notice and request for nominations will be sent to all active practising members in mid-August.

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