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Will pandemic finally lead to lower annual fees for Ontario licensees? | Andrew Puiras

Monday, September 21, 2020 @ 11:07 AM | By Andrew Puiras

Annual fees have been a sort of perennial issue in Law Society of Ontario (LSO) politics, causing groans but never erupting to the forefront. In the 2019 bencher election, many candidates made lowering annual fees part of their platform, but annual fees got lost in the shuffle as the statement of principles took centre stage. In 2019, Convocation lowered 2020 annual fees for lawyers by $135 to $2,066, a modest decrease of approximately six per cent from the previous year.

This was hardly sufficient to address the issue. In January 2020, lawyer Elsa Ascencio started a petition to lower annual fees further. The LSO ignored it.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the absurdity of charging such exorbitant fees, especially as licensee incomes have plummeted due to the shutdown of the courts. The pandemic has created a new sense of urgency which has become impossible to ignore. The LSO has been forced to respond to pressure and the reformers have won some victories.

On April 2, 2020, the LSO announced that the June call to the bar ceremonies had been cancelled and that licensing candidates would be called to the bar administratively. Those called to the bar in May would be charged the normal call to the bar fee of $250, while those called in June or afterward would be charged $195. The difference in fees set off a furor among licensing candidates on Twitter, who noted that the high fees made no sense and added to the hardships facing new lawyers at an already difficult time.

On May 25, 2020, the LSO relented and announced that the call to the bar fee would be lowered to $165 for all candidates called to the bar after May 1, 2020. A modest victory, perhaps, but an important one nonetheless and a possible preview of things to come.

Benchers Geoffrey Pollock and Marian Lippa have proposed a motion before Convocation to reduce annual fees by 25 per cent for 2021. The motion is due to be debated at Convocation on Sept. 24. While previous efforts to lower annual fees have been unsuccessful, there is reason to believe things might be different this time around.

In August, bencher Michael Lesage asked Ontario licensees on Twitter to opine on the LSO’s annual fees. Lesage’s tweet received dozens of responses as licensees vented their frustration over the fees. Lesage says he has received “hundreds of emails” demanding lower fees. Criminal defence lawyer Ryan Handlarski is also spearheading a “Defund LSO” campaign with a website and Twitter account. The campaign encourages licensees to e-mail benchers and urge them to support Pollock and Lippa’s motion. 

Many of the commenters in Lesage’s Twitter thread pointed out that it makes no sense to charge a senior partner on Bay Street the same annual fee as a recent call or a solo practitioner with low-income clients. This imposes a disproportionate burden on lower-earning licensees and creates an access to justice issue as licensees are forced to charge higher fees or gravitate toward higher-paying areas of law. Adopting Pollock’s and Lippa’s motion could be the first step toward the adoption of a graduated fee system based on annual income.

Another common theme among the Twitter comments is that the LSO’s fees are an outlier among professional regulators in Ontario. Ontario doctors pay $1,725 a year. (In fact, doctors in every province except Alberta pay lower fees than Ontario lawyers.) Ontario nurses pay $270 while Ontario teachers pay $170. The fees charged are hardly commensurate with the incomes earned by the members of each profession.

Furthermore, commenters noted that the LSO’s fees are an outlier among legal regulators in North America. California lawyers pay $544 a year, while lawyers in New York state pay $375 biennially. Some legal regulators charge a graduated fee based on year of call. Texas lawyers pay $68 to $235 depending on year of call, plus a $65 fee to fund legal services for indigent people. Illinois lawyers pay $0 to $385 depending on year of call. Yes, that is correct: new calls in Illinois are exempt from paying an annual fee.

Predictably, Pollock’s and Lippa’s motion has generated opposition from the LSO establishment. The chair of the LSO’s Audit and Finance Committee, Joseph Groia, wrote an opinion piece opposing the motion. Groia, the principal of a Bay Street law firm who is nearly 40 years removed from the burdens facing recent calls, does not propose any concrete alternative solutions for financial relief.

Groia does not explain why it is necessary for the LSO to spend over $230 million a year. He does not explain why the LSO needs to charge lawyers $2,066 a year while so many professional regulators manage to get by while charging far less. Groia says many lawyers do not need financial relief. But rather than being an argument in favour of maintaining the current fee structure, that sounds like a strong argument in favour of a graduated fee system.

It is a great mystery why Ontario licensees have put up with this sorry state of affairs for so long. But the pandemic has been a game-changer. Licensees are shouting out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” Perhaps the groundswell of support will be impossible to ignore this time around.

Andrew Puiras is a corporate and commercial  lawyer practising in Sudbury, Ont. Follow him at @PuirasLaw.

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