Last weekend, I had the privilege of signing a protocol with one of the largest justice institutions in Ontario, and certainly in Canada. The Law Society of Upper Canada is essentially an organization whose mission is to protect the public and ensure that lawyers and paralegals practising law in the province are properly licensed, trained and governed. The Law Society’s independence in carrying out its work is absolutely crucial. However, there is a legal debate, yet to be tested in the courts, as to whether, for the purposes of the French Language Services Act, the Law Society can be regarded as an institution of the Legislature, which would allow my office to receive complaints and investigate the French-language services that the Law Society provides to the public and to its members.
Needless to say, engaging in such a legal debate would be, at a minimum, a very lengthy, costly process; in addition, the results would be risky, and the ultimate outcome would probably be known only at the highest levels of the judiciary. That’s why I am so proud of the Law Society today. Its leaders have understood that the public interest is best served by the opening of a constructive dialogue with the Commissioner’s Office in order to properly serve the public and the Law Society’s members. The protocol is an act of maturity and respect between two organizations that care about the endeavour to improve the delivery of high-quality French-language services. This innovative action is also a further demonstration of the change in tone and attitude that started some time ago in the Law Society. Though only in the past year, the Law Society established a Law Practice Program (LPP) in both English and French. Yet the French version of the LPP is not just a translation, as is often the case elsewhere. This new program was designed entirely in cooperation with the University of Ottawa, based on the specific needs of the Franco-Ontarian community. In addition, the Law Society adopted a new regulation on French-language services in the last few months. And now it has signed a protocol with the Commissioner’s Office, when it had no obligation to do so.
Let’s be clear: this in no way means backing down from our respective positions, as mentioned by some media outlets. The protocol makes this quite plain. Rather, the aim is to initiate this dialogue and make it constructive, despite the inevitable disagreements that we will have over time. I can already see that professional training will be one of the first issues that we will have to deal with.
What type of complaints will be involved? It can vary. The Law Society provides many different services to the public and to its members. There is professional training, as I just mentioned, but also documents, translation of website pages, and direct assistance to the public and the Law Society. At no time, however, will the Commissioner’s Office process individual complaints against Law Society members for failing, for example, to follow the rule of professional conduct regarding the duty to inform members of the public of their right to a trial in French.
That said, the good faith is evident, and the will to take positive action indisputable. With these two elements, we can move forward, and I am confident that our new partnership will be a success. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the unerring leadership of the two treasurers, Tom Conway and Janet E. Minor, without whom none of this would have been possible. The same goes for the CEO, Robert Lapper, who quickly realized and thoroughly grasped the great importance of taking positive action. He provided his outstanding staff with the necessary instructions to carry out the discussions between the Commissioner’s Office and the Law Society. Of course, many others deserve a sincere vote of thanks, but for the moment, they will have to be content with this nameless recognition.
This protocol is also a precedent for other professional associations, an issue that I have mentioned in several previous annual reports. I hereby extend an invitation to those other professional associations to engage in a similar endeavour. A word to the wise!