Destroying the Law Society of BC does not promote access to justice

Opinion: The proposed legislation undermines the voice of the elected members of the bar who currently govern the profession and places power in the hands of a “single legal regulator” dotted with government appointees.

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Prime Minister David Eby’s government appears hell-bent on dominance. Not world domination, but the best option. Domination of all industries and professions in our province. And it’s time to back off.

The latest example of this government’s desire to put everything under its control is Bill 21. This proposed legislation aims to eliminate the Law Society of British Columbia, which has existed since 1869; undermine the voice of the magistrates, the elected members of the bar who currently govern the profession and protect the public; and place power in the clutches of a “single legal regulator” peppered with government appointees.

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What a good idea. Right up there with throwing a rock at the wasp nest under your porch.

I’ll spare you the calculations behind the composition of the proposed new board. Lawyers mix with notaries, paralegals, and, you guessed it, government appointees. The initial board members appoint other board members. Like most things government touches, it’s not exactly a model of simplicity or efficiency. But the thrust of the proposed changes is clear. The independence of the bar will be ruled out. Government control will be present. Let the politicization of our province’s legal system begin.

Eby, with his 17 months of experience as prime minister, has decided to sweep away 155 years of wisdom accumulated by the Law Society of British Columbia. Such a drastic measure must have been the result of extensive consultation, right? Mistaken. Although Attorney General Niki Sharma is now on a whirlwind speaking tour discussing legislation that has already been drafted and introduced. I may be wrong, but isn’t consultation supposed to happen before a decision is made, not after?

I doubt the average public sees this measure as an existential threat to their daily lives. There’s rent to pay, mortgages to cover, and the Canucks actually have a chance to win this year. I am not sure that the public will always appreciate the importance of having a strong and independent legal profession, that is, until they need a lawyer to fight for them.

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This power grab does not only affect lawyers. It affects you. At some point, you may need to fight government overreach in health, education, housing, or any other area. You will need a strong, independent attorney to defend you and your rights. Not someone controlled by the government.

The independence of the bar association is essential for the functioning of the legal system and the rule of law. But as important as they are, let’s put aside the lofty principles for a moment and boil things down to the basics. Bar independence is important not because it benefits lawyers, but because it benefits you, the people who need our help.

A clear example is Hong Kong. One of the first things the government did after indicting the editor of a pro-democracy newspaper was to deny him a lawyer of his choice and insist on a government-approved one. Any idea why they made that move?

In case you’re wondering, it’s not just lawyers (I’m one of them) who see this power grab for what it really is. Both the BC Conservative Party and BC United have expressed strong opposition to the proposed legislation.

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Rustad described it as “a bill to undermine the independence of lawyers and politicize British Columbia’s legal system” as part of Mr. Eby’s “top-down authoritarian approach, with a lack of transparency and almost no consultation.” BC United described it as “a profound threat to the independence of our legal system… an unprecedented measure… that undermines the administration of justice in BC and erodes[s] the checks and balances essential to a free and democratic society.”

Pretty strong words. From voices from across the political spectrum. It makes you think there might be something there.

You may not feel the negative effects of this proposed legislation right away. But it will, subject to serious amendments, a change of government, or the inevitable court challenge ahead: a court challenge that will cost millions of your tax dollars to pay for years of litigation. Money that could be used to build schools for your children, hire family doctors for your parents, or make sure there are enough ambulances to take you to the hospital in an emergency.

I suspect that anyone who opposes this legislation will be portrayed by the government as simply looking for number one. NIMBY under another name. What good person could oppose access to justice and diversity? But despite the government’s talking points, the legislation is not about those things. Things that the Law Society has already been addressing, for example through its Innovation Sandbox”, a program that explores innovative ways of delivering legal services for the benefit of the public. Things the government could address by adequately funding legal aid using the hundreds of millions of dollars it collects each year from taxes on legal fees for its stated purpose. That would support access to justice.

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This legislation is about cold, naked government power. And to hell with anyone who gets in the way. Ask doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers or anyone who doesn’t want a skyscraper built next to their child’s elementary school.

The government is dressing the legislation in its Sunday best. Great statements all around. But don’t believe the hype. Buzzwords don’t turn Coke into Pepsi, nor does government overreach make sensible policies. Destroying the legal society does not advance access to justice or diversity in the slightest. They can be addressed without government control, within the system we already have. It is a system that has made real changes to better serve the people of British Columbia and is committed to doing more.

But not all is lost. There is another way to go. If this government is willing to climb out of the abyss, it will have a willing partner in the legal community. But if you persist in this attempt to destroy the independence of the Bar, you should expect a response. A response in court. And, if necessary, at the polls. The ability to defend the interests of our clients, yours, demands no less.

Matthew Nathanson is a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver.

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