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Joseph Groia

LSO benchers approve budget, create COVID-19 response program

Friday, November 27, 2020 @ 5:02 PM | By Ian Burns

Benchers of the Law Society of Ontario have voted unanimously to establish a COVID-19 response program to give lawyers and paralegals who have been hit hard by the pandemic the opportunity to defer their annual fee payments.

Audit and finance committee chair Joseph Groia said the program, which was approved at the Nov. 27 Convocation, “tries to be fair, sensitive and compassionate” by focusing on those lawyers and paralegals who are most in need of assistance.

Joseph Groia, LSO audit and finance committee chair

“There is no doubt that there are many other ways the society could consider extending a helping hand in these difficult times,” he said. “We had a great deal of discussion and consideration about alternatives, but we are at a point where we need to make a decision — we need to act now to extend a helping hand to those who need it.”

The response program would allow eligible lawyers and paralegals to defer their 2021 annual fees to March 31, 2022, and is aimed at solo practitioners or those who are associated with small law firms (five licensees or less) and have seen a significant reduction in their revenues. Newer practitioners (those who received their licence from 2019 to 2021) and have a gross income in 2020 of $50,000 or less would also be eligible. As part of the application process, licensees would have to attest to meeting the eligibility criteria, but no there would be no requirement for supporting documentation. The law society said more information about the process and the application for deferral will be available as soon as possible.

Several benchers raised concerns the assistance offered wasn’t enough, but committee member Philip Horgan said it tries to balance the needs of those who have been particularly hard hit with those individuals who may not be in such dire straits. And Michelle Lomazzo said trying to find that balance has been difficult.

“We are open to concrete suggestions going forward and responding as COVID-19 unfolds, but this is a starting measure,” she said.

Convocation also passed the law society’s 2021 budget, which contains a reduction in annual fees for both lawyers and paralegals. Groia said the budget features a reduction in expenditures of approximately $10 million, but that will be somewhat offset by a projected decrease in non-annual fee revenues of $5 million primarily as a result of COVID-19.

“This budget seeks to ensure the society has enough financial resources to fulfil its important mandate as a regulator in the public interest,” he said. “It plans for the resumption of most regular operations in 2021, and I will add a personal note of prayer that we indeed see that happen.”

Geoff Pollock, LSO bencher

In 2021, lawyers will see a decrease in annual fees of $193, for a total of $1,873, while paralegals will see a decrease of $42, bringing their total fees to $964. The budget was met with wide support around the bencher table, but unlike the COVID-19 response program it was not unanimous. Geoff Pollock, who in September sponsored a motion alongside fellow bencher Marian Lippa to bring in an across-the-board 25 per cent reduction in annual fees, said the pandemic has been devastating to the profession and members have been pleading for help.

“Our members have asked us to offer them blood, toil, tears and sweat — and offer we have, but it is not ours,” he said. “We have abdicated our responsibility to the professions and most importantly our duty to the public, and the result will be fewer lawyers, far fewer paralegals, access to justice will be further imperiled and public confidence in Ontario’s legal system will be eroded.”

Convocation also revisited the contentious issue of eliminating exemptions on paying annual fees for people who are over the age of 65 and who do not practise or provide legal services except for some pro bono activities. In October, benchers established a new fee category for such individuals which would require them to pay 10 per cent of regular fees. Jean-Jacques Desgranges and John Fagan brought forward a motion to set that rate at five per cent, but it was voted down. A proposal concerning change to the annual general meeting (AGM) process was sent back to committee.

Convocation also awarded an honorary doctor of laws to Holocaust survivor and educator Tibor (Max) Eisen, who saw his family taken to Auschwitz in 1944 where most perished in the gas chambers. In 2015 and 2016, Eisen testified in Germany at the trial of two former Auschwitz guards whom were convicted at their trials.