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LSO fee relief motion a matter of disaster relief for members | Gerard Charette

Friday, September 18, 2020 @ 11:02 AM | By Gerard Charette

Gerard Charette  %>
Gerard Charette
This Law Society of Ontario (LSO) bencher from Windsor would like to offer a view different from that espoused by Joe Groia in his column of Sept. 16 (LSO budget balance: Support for licensees and public). Unlike Joe, I firmly support bencher Geoff Pollock’s motion to reduce members’ fees by 25 per cent for the upcoming year (the “Fee Relief Motion”). That motion comes before Convocation on Sept. 24. Sadly, a motion to table (defer) bencher Pollock’s Fee Relief Motion might be made without allowing there to be any debate. But in any event, there will be some important points raised. So, please tune in to the LSO’s public access of the Sept. 24 Convocation.

Joe is the LSO’s newly appointed chair of Audit and Finance. I am reliably told that he devotes a lot of time to the task and is intent on getting things right. However, his article seems to betray an excessive zeal for caution and a flawed perception about money and money trees.

Specifically, I note Joe's comment that: “Regrettably, there is no Law Society of Ontario money tree ...” Although this may be true, I explain below that the LSO has resources that it can deploy to help members.

And, speaking of money trees, we know that the LSO relies on the hard work of members to supply it. Yet, to be blunt, it is the members’ money and it’s their trees. And, the money trees belonging to the members are under severe distress. From this perspective, the LSO is merely a taxing entity that has the legal authority to pick money from someone else’s trees. It ought to do so with compassion and responsiveness to the difficulties faced by the members.

The Fee Relief Motion is a matter of disaster relief for members. Hurricane COVID is like a slow-moving tropical depression that continues to grind across Ontario. Looking at it this way, the LSO is much the same as an emergency response organization such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross. Indeed, I note that responsiveness and compassion are named as two of the five corporate values espoused by the LSO in its most recent annual report. We must consider that our members are like supplicants for assistance in the wake of Hurricane COVID. They need quick responsiveness and extraordinary compassion.

Does an emergency responder tell members that they need to wait, otherwise they would be interfering with the responder’s budgeting process or finance operations? I think that the LSO would rightly be criticized as not acting responsively or compassionately if it were to do so. Like any other emergency responder, the LSO ought to quickly let members know that guaranteed fee relief is on the way.

Many lawyers and paralegals are struggling, and many do not have adequate resources to keep their practices above water. About 16,300 members practise in law firms having 10 members or less. Many include sole practitioners and young members who have enormous educational debts. Large law firms have also made painful adjustments. All firms are now planning their budgets for a difficult 2021.

We have every prospect of a second wave of COVID-19. Israel has just entered its second national lockdown. Britain is facing the same possibility. It is quite possible that members will be hit again by a new round of health-related practice restrictions. Their income is likely to suffer another serious blow.

On the other hand, when we consider the LSO’s resources, we know that it: 1) has just recently received a $15 million payment from LawPRO, a buffer that LawPRO no longer needs, and, 2) has $5 million sitting in its capital budget. Are there any bets that the LSO has some other spare cash lying around?

Some may protest that a 25 per cent reduction is too excessive. Here is why it is not:

The 2020 lawyer member fees were set by Convocation at $2,066. This comprised $1,574 for the general levy, $219 for the comp fund levy, and smaller  levies for law libraries and capital improvements. So, an overall 25 per cent reduction in a lawyer’s fee for 2021 would be approximately $516.50. But know this: the Comp Fund Committee has already delivered a roughly $140 reduction in 2021 comp fund levy. This reduction is at no cost to the LSO because the reduction effectively comes out of comp fund assets, not the LSO’s assets. So, the LSO only has to provide part of the savings. This part amounts to approximately $376.50 per paying member. The Society can easily provide this part.

A good portion of the LSO resource base referred above, and other some assets, can be deployed in support of member relief. The LSO can afford the relief package and still maintain its robust regulatory programs.

As to the sense of caution, Groia’s column repeatedly uses phrases like “thoughtful, strategic and disciplined” and “carefully reviewing.” Yet, I am reminded of the joke about watching paint dry on the side of a barn. I imagine a group of persons carefully studying the LSO’s financial statements projected in a movie-size image on the side of a barn. Will they continue to study carefully or will they quickly realize that the other side of the barn is on fire? Like I said, “stay tuned.” And bring your water bucket!

I am grateful for Joe’s sense of caution, but, all in all, I believe that both fiscal prudence and compassion are honoured in supporting bencher Pollock’s Fee Relief Motion. Please let your benchers know how you feel.

Gerard Charette is a senior associate at Miller Canfield LLP in Windsor, Ont. He was called to the bar in 1979. Gerard was elected as a bencher of the Law Society of Ontario in 2019. He is the chair of the LSO’s Mental Health Working Group and a member of several other committees.

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