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How lawyers can help Canada navigate COVID-19 storm

Thursday, June 11, 2020 @ 11:49 AM | By Warren Urquhart

Warren Urquhart %>
Warren Urquhart
One great tragedy of COVID-19 is that for a generation of people, the two most formative societal events they lived through are the 2008 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. It may have been 12-plus years ago, but those who came of age amid financial devastation have now found that the light at the end of the tunnel just ran out of batteries. The year 2008 didn’t have social distancing, government lockdowns and an infectious disease affecting day-to-day life. Society and the legal community are now playing a different ball game, except now we’re all blindfolded and six feet apart.

However, by looking back, we can see how the great recession of 2008 affected the legal community and society, specifically the most vulnerable populations and the lawyers that serve them. With hindsight, we can better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

A grim, confident prediction about the pandemic is that just like in 2008, our most vulnerable communities and the people that serve them will be hurt the most. In Finding the Silver Lining, Rachel J. Littman points out that in the U.S., during 2008, “most state government departments and agencies are facing budget cuts and hiring freezes. Public interest organizations, like those that provide direct legal services to the disenfranchised and low-income members of society, are experiencing fewer and lower amounts of donations, grants and financial support.”

During 2010 as economies across the world continued to recover, the Canadian Bar Association commissioned Moving Forward on Legal Aid, and found that Canadian legal aid funding dropped 10 per cent. Growth rates and GDP may recover and grow, but individuals at the bottom don’t get the attention and support like those metrics do.

Domestic abuse is on the rise, workers are not sure if their employee rights have been violated and many small businesses are confused about what they can and can’t do: a cut in legal aid now means our justice accessibility gap becomes a chasm.

With the possibility of legal aid cuts, an argument that might come back, be it good or bad, is the deregulation of the legal industry. After the 2008 recession, per the West Virginia Law Review in From the Great Depression to the Great Recession, “economic hardship triggers recurring arguments to deregulate the practice of law.” The article focused on a U.S. perspective, and while our political climates are different, if the idea of deregulation promises to reduce legal costs, a section of society will advocate for it.

Again, talk to a worker who was sent to work without proper PPE or someone currently desperate for legal help: stakeholders all across our nation are confused about navigating the law, and debates about the structure of the legal community are apt to ensue.

We know the economic fallout of this crisis is devastating, but it could get worse, with a depression being a looming possibility. By taking a look back at the Great Depression in FDR’s America, there is a precedent for what our economic recovery in the 2020s may be. While the exact extent it contributed to economic recovery after the Great Depression is still debated, the New Deal undeniably played a crucial role in thrusting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and increasing wages for the working class.

We may require a different set of policy solutions 90 years later, but the legal community now can mirror our Depression-era counterparts. In The Great Recession and the Legal Profession, Eli Wald discusses the vital role lawyers played in FDR’s recovering America. “The experience of the bar following the Great Depression is instructive … as lawyers eventually emerged from it not only as architects of the New Deal but also established themselves, over time, as principal actors in the administration of government and the (lucrative) implementation of administrative law.” What role will lawyers play in the months and years of economic recovery come?

Lawyers have power; most people do not.

In the words of poet and author Damian Barr: “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.”

The economic fallout of COVID-19 will affect lawyers and people across the spectrum of society differently. As the lawyers in the New Deal America played a role in making sure their country got back on their feet, let’s make sure that we do so by using our influence over policy and fighting against legal aid cuts.

A lot of people are in boats that will be lost in the fog for some time: let us be the lighthouse guiding them to shore.

Warren Urquhart is entering his second year at Osgoode Hall Law School. He’s a freelance writer and ex-cloud consultant. You can reach him via LinkedIn and Medium.

Photo credit / lavijus ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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