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LSO budget balance: Support for licensees and public | Joseph Groia

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 @ 8:18 AM | By Joseph Groia

Joseph Groia %>
Joseph Groia
These are difficult times for many members of the legal professions. Like so many others across the province, the country and the globe, lawyers and paralegals have seen COVID-19 have a material impact on their practices. Now is the time for the legal community to come together and work collaboratively to respond to the very real social and financial effects of COVID-19. And, we need to do this in a thoughtful, strategic and disciplined way — resisting reckless responses in direct contrast to the havoc of the pandemic itself.

The Law Society of Ontario is listening to its members. We hear their concerns; we understand the impacts some are facing. We have been working hard to respond to these uncertain times and to support lawyers and paralegals as we continue our work as a public interest regulator. In addition to providing responsive practice management guidance to the professions, the LSO has taken significant measures during the pandemic, including both internal cost-cutting and relief for members. This has included extended timelines for annual report filing, deferred pre-authorized payment withdrawals for members on monthly plans and working with government to ensure that pandemic monetary supports are applicable to legal professionals. In May, benchers also voted to stop their compensation until June 30. In addition, as a matter of regular practice, benchers forgo remuneration at the start of each new governance cycle. This means beginning each bencher year, benchers begin working for another 26 days without compensation.

We have just started our 2021 budget process. It is clear that we have an enormous task ahead of us. Our 2020 expenses and revenues are both down dramatically. We are working with our partners in the profession to determine how many members are at risk of not continuing with their practices. We also know that while COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some members of society, and while there are strong indications that this is the same for the legal community, there are also many lawyers and paralegals who have weathered this storm well. Our challenge is to help those who need the help and not those who do not. At the same time, we need to continue to pursue our core mandate to protect the public.

I believe that it is even more important today to ensure appropriate and accessible legal services for the people of Ontario and to help facilitate access to justice more broadly. This includes strategic initiatives we have been working on such as equity and diversity, technology, anti-money laundering, family law service providers, county law libraries, continuing professional development and competence, errors and omissions insurance and funding for the compensation fund which provides for payments to be made to members of the public who have lost money because of the dishonesty of a member.

The motion to reduce fees by 25 per cent that will be brought forward to Convocation later this month by certain benchers asks for an arbitrary cut to revenues without regard to our expenses. It does not propose which operations and programs will need to be cut to respond to a $23-million cut in our revenue. I can say without hesitation that this is not a prudent approach. It will provide financial relief to many lawyers who do not need it. It is unsustainable if we are to move ahead with our job as regulators, and most importantly, it deflects us from the hard work we need to do to make difficult strategic decisions in these uncertain times. This is not the time for rash proposals to be waved about as a Band-Aid solution to a much deeper problem.

That work is underway with the Audit and Finance Committee. We are going to be carefully reviewing expenses and every revenue source we have. After this thoughtful and disciplined process, the 2021 budget for the law society will be brought forward by the Audit and Finance Committee to Convocation for a decision in November.

Regrettably, there is no Law Society of Ontario money tree or magic wand. I do believe that we can turn this crisis into an opportunity to reassess what we do, how we do it and why we do it. Working collaboratively, we will find the silver lining that will allow us to move ahead in a cost-effective sustainable manner that allows us to deliver on our core mandate to regulate the professions and protect the public, while also taking a caring and compassionate approach to those members of our professions who have been unduly and harshly affected by the impacts of the pandemic.

I have been practising law for almost 40 years. That experience has taught me that we are all in this together. We have a chance to build a new and better law society. I hope that when this pandemic is but a distant and unhappy memory, we will all be proud of the way that we responded in 2020 and 2021 and because we made wise decisions the legal profession will thrive for at least another 40 years.

Joseph Groia is the chair of the Law Society of Ontario’s Audit and Finance Committee. He has been a bencher since 2015. He was called to the bar in 1981 and he is a founder and principal at Groia & Company Professional Corporation, where he practises corporate and securities litigation.

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