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Joseph Groia

LSO in good financial shape for 2021, but COVID-19 brings uncertainty: finance chair

Friday, February 26, 2021 @ 9:46 AM | By Ian Burns

The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) is in good financial shape as it begins 2021, but uncertainties about what the continuing COVID-19 pandemic could bring means that law society benchers and management need to remain vigilant in light of possible storm clouds on the horizon.

That was one of the key messages emerging from LSO Convocation Feb. 25, the first meeting of the new year. Audit and finance committee chair Joseph Groia said he believed the law society will end 2020 with a gain of about $15 million in its finances and has the financial resources to deal with the uncertainties that lie ahead as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Joseph Groia, LSO audit and finance committee chair

Joseph Groia, LSO audit and finance committee chair

“As you may recall last year’s budget called for a loss in our general fund, but in fact will end the year with a gain of approximately $4 million,” he said. “While the impact of COVID-19 on our revenue was materially negative, some of management and Convocation’s deliberate and consequential expense savings have more than offset the revenue reduction.”

But Groia also warned the storm clouds have not completely cleared from the horizon, noting historically the law society has seen an increase in compensation fund claims after an economic downturn and “we are anticipating this may very well occur as a result of COVID-19.” He added LSO management will need to carefully monitor its finances as the year progresses, especially in light of the program set up last year to allow lawyers and paralegals to defer their 2021 annual fees.

“No one can predict exactly when and how we will return to more normal practice,” he said. “But, I can see no reason why we cannot continue to do the important work that is necessary to regulate the two legal professions in the public interest.”

 Diana Miles, CEO of the LSO

Diana Miles, CEO of the LSO

Law society CEO Diana Miles said the COVID-19 crisis resulted in a “whole new set of challenges” to LSO’s business lines but said the “nudge of the pandemic actually moved us an organization closer to improved automation and processing.”

“As the board and management move forward together in 2021 we will want to thoroughly consider and prioritize policy or program course corrections, carefully managing the impact of those changes and making sure the organization has the time and sufficient resources to support our operational needs,” she said while speaking to her CEO report. “And we look forward to a time when the words pandemic and COVID-19 are no longer a part of every decision taken and in every sentence everyone utters.”

Benchers voted down a motion asking former chief justice Beverley McLachlin to step down from her post on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal in light of the aggressive crackdown on human rights in the former British colony by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Motion sponsor Chi-Kun Shi said the court, which she said had been viewed as the last hope for people in Hong Kong for protection of fundamental civil rights, was now basically “nothing more than an arm of the oppressive government of China” after a judgment (in which McLachlin did not take part) ruled against a news magazine publisher for violating Hong Kong’s national security law.

“It is clear that the foreign judges have been sidelined so that any of their ideas or interests to enrich Hong Kong jurisprudence towards building a more just and free society is not going to be countenanced by the government of China,” she said. “They have been sidelined to be nothing more than ornamental to that regime.”

At the outset of the meeting benchers voted to support a motion by the LSO’s Human Rights Monitoring Group to send a letter of invention to the Chinese government over its detention and torture of lawyer Zhang Zhan, who had been detained after travelling to Wuhan province to monitor the extent of China’s COVID-19 crackdown. Shi said the law society would have “no moral suasion” if it continued to people like Zhang while staying silent on McLachlin.

But other benchers voiced strong opposition to Shi’s suggestion, with Jonathan Rosenthal calling the motion “embarrassing.”

“[McLachlin] is in a much better position than the benchers of the Law Society of Ontario to decide how to defend the rule of law in Hong Kong — she will decide what is appropriate and does not need our help,” he said. “What we would really be doing is effectively interfering with judicial independence, which is offensive to do. She will make any decision that she thinks is appropriate.”

Convocation also defeated two motions brought forward by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO) asking for benchers to consider the idea of licensing candidates being allowed to vote in bencher elections and giving them a permanent voice at the law society’s Professional Development and Competence (PDC) committee.

 LSO bencher Atrisha Lewis

LSO bencher Atrisha Lewis

Atrisha Lewis, who was in favour of both motions, said it is “very important to engage the future of our profession, especially on issues that directly relate to them.”

“If there is going to be a decision made about a group of individuals, then they should be given an opportunity to be consulted and make submissions,” she said. “Licensing candidates pay fees to the law society and they are regulated by the law society, so they very much have the same stake in the law society as I do.”

But Jean-Jacques Desgranges said, while he felt that students and licensing candidates should be welcome by invitation to participate in the PDC committee, he did not think a non-member of the profession should be allowed to vote.

“I think we have to remember giving the vote to a particular professional order requires certain skills to be known and some experience as well, and by allowing certain categories to come in and vote such as law students we would be doing a disservice to the profession,” he said.

Convocation approved a plan to continue offering four-hour online licensing examinations for another three years, until the end of the 2023-2024 licensing cycle, and renewed the minimum eight-month articling term for the 2021-2022 licensing cycle. Benchers also formally voted to implement a number of strategic change items that were previously approved in principle by Convocation, including removal of the requirements for licensees who wish to surrender their licence and professional corporations that wish to surrender their certificate of authorization to publish a notice of intention to surrender in the Ontario Reports.

A decision was also made to allow paralegals to be considered for the Lincoln Alexander Award and an honorary doctor of laws, honoris causa (LLD) was conferred on street nurse, educator, homelessness activist, filmmaker and author Cathy Crowe in recognition of her “immense impact on homelessness and social justice in Canada” and for “giving a voice to the marginalized and vulnerable through the documentaries she has produced and the books she has authored.”

The next Convocation is scheduled for April 22. The LSO’s annual general meeting (AGM) will take place virtually on May 12.

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