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Malcolm Mercer

LSO moves treasurer election online as COVID-19 forces cancellation of in-person voting

Friday, May 29, 2020 @ 12:43 PM | By Ian Burns

As the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) met for its second virtual Convocation May 28, the COVID-19 pandemic was top of mind as benchers voted to move June’s treasurer election online.

James Varro, director of the law society’s office of the CEO and corporate secretary, said the treasurer election will largely mirror the process for the online bencher election and the electronic voting procedures will provide for an online ballot access through a unique election ID and password issued to every eligible voter.

“In effect there is no real material change in the voting period for this online election,” he said. “The description of the online process will be included in online voting procedures established and published by the secretary in advance of the start of voting. When the online voting period ends, the results will be provided to the secretary, who will then announce them to Convocation.”

Eligible voters are benchers entitled to vote in Convocation, with Teresa Donnelly and Philip Horgan in the running for the top job. Varro said, in the event of a tie vote, the treasurer will randomly choose the name of one candidate and cast a vote for that individual, who will then be declared elected.

“I will have access to who has voted, but no one will know how anyone has voted,” he said.

LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer

Treasurer Malcolm Mercer said making an online voting process permanent was something which was considered, but it was decided to keep it online for just this election.

“The conclusion was we should see how it works and recognize the current context, and if there is an appetite to continue this after this treasurer election then Convocation can of course do that,” he said.

Convocation also approved the law society’s audited financial statements for 2019. The audit and finance committee report showed the LSO’s lawyer and paralegal general funds, which account for the law society’s program delivery and administrative activities, reported combined operating expenses in excess of revenues of $836,000. The society’s restricted funds reported revenues over expenses of $8.4 million in 2019, with the lawyer compensation fund experiencing revenues in excess of expenses of $10.1 million.

The report also said the COVID-19 outbreak may “negatively impact the timing and/or amount of the society’s future revenues,” but added “the duration and overall impact is unknown at this time.”

“The COVID-19 outbreak has led to expense reductions including those that are circumstantial to event cancellations and the shift from in-person to virtual meetings,” the report said. “The society continues to explore other expense reduction strategies to further mitigate the potential decreases in revenues. It is not possible to reliably estimate the length and severity of these developments and the impact on the financial results and condition of the society in future periods.”

LSO audit and finance committee chair Teresa Donnelly

Donnelly, who serves as the committee chair, said the LSO’s financial position at the end of 2019 “will support our ability to manage through the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.”

“Having said that, we are actively monitoring the impact the pandemic will have on revenues and have and continue to take steps to mitigate those impacts,” she said.

Bencher Andrew Spurgeon, board chair of the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LawPRO), said the base premium for 2019 remained at $2,950 per lawyer, but added COVID-19 is also anticipated to put pressure on LawPRO’s bottom line.

“Many firms are seeing changes in demand up or down, depending on the kind of work they do and who their clients are,” he said. “These variations, combined with a probable recession, will likely result in changes to the number and kinds of claims that LawPRO will see. What we know from past experience is that economic downturns have driven up claims.”

Spurgeon noted LawPRO offered payment deferrals for filings, premiums, levies and deductibles up to July 1 to help lawyers manage financially, but he expects to see claims costs higher than previously expected.

“While it is early days, these higher than expected claims costs may translate into a need to increase premiums at some point,” he said. “While the courts and real estate market have slowed down, LawPRO’s responsibilities continue.”

Mercer also said May 28 saw the licensing of 296 new lawyers in the province, noting COVID-19 had forced the cancellation of June’s regular Call to the Bar ceremony.

“While the welcoming of new licensees to the practice of law in Ontario warrants celebration as it always does, our new lawyers begin their professional lives in uncertain and challenging times,” he said. “I ask all the professionals in our profession to join me in helping them to establish themselves as practising lawyers and professionals in this province.”

Barbara Murchie was also elected as bencher to fill the vacancy created by the appointment of Gina Papageorgiou as a judge of the Superior Court of Justice. Murchie, a practitioner with Murchie Law, previously served as bencher and was chair of the law society’s tribunals committee.

LSO bencher Julian Falconer

As Convocation came to a close, bencher Julian Falconer raised a point of order as benchers prepared to enter a committee of the whole to consider several matters in-camera. He proposed a motion to ensure what was discussed behind closed doors be communicated to the public and benchers consider the issue of transparency.

“I am worried that I might be seen as agreeing to what to me is a set of deliberations that lack any transparency,” he said. “I think, perhaps unintentionally, but nevertheless the reality is we have slipped into what amounts to secret deliberations over a whole range of issues, and what I am asking is that we publicly discuss the merits of creating transparency to our process.”

But Mercer ruled Falconer out of order, saying his motion should be brought within committee of the whole.

“We have a process in our bylaws which provides for a committee of the whole,” he said. “The process of a committee of the whole is like any other committee, which is preliminary discussions and debates with a view to see what comes before Convocation, and then for a decision.”

The law society’s annual general meeting (AGM), originally scheduled for May 13, will now take place on Aug. 10 at 5:15 p.m. at Osgoode Hall and by webcast, or, if required, as a virtual meeting. More details will be made available closer to the date.

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