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Les Leyne: Lawyers gearing up for fight over Legal Professions Act

B.C.’s proposed Legal Professions Act cuts into lawyers’ lucrative turf and reduces their control over their own oversight. But the complaints go beyond that.
Premier David Eby, a lawyer, hasn’t been shy about changing professional ground rules, including those in his own profession. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

With no fewer than nine experts listed as validating and supporting a bill revamping the oversight of lawyers the day it dropped, it looked like the legislation would be warmly received.

“Welcome … gives us tools to better protect the public,” said a former Law Society president.

“Makes justice more accessible…,” said a law professor.

“Will enhance the diversity, number and affordability of legal services…,” said a King’s counsel and life bencher of the Law Society.

And so on.

But it turns out that upending the legal world won’t come without a few arguments, or, more accurately, vociferous criticisms and outright hostility.

It’s not quite the sunny greeting that was suggested when it was introduced last week.

The Legal Profession Act is being replaced by the Legal Professions Act. The pluralization refers to an increase in the number of subsets of people who work adjacent to lawyers and will soon be included in a new overarching regulatory framework for lawyers.

The idea is to give people more choices in how to get help solving legal problems. Notaries public will be brought into the fold and their scope of practice will be broadened. More day-to-day matters will be included in their responsibilities, such as helping clients through the probate process, or preparing wills that have a life estate component.

A new designation — registered paralegal — will be created to further widen the choices. They will handle some matters independently, without having to do so under supervision of a lawyer. Those matters have not yet been fully defined.

The bill obviously cuts into lawyers’ lucrative turf and reduces their control over their own oversight. So some objections were expected.

But the complaints go beyond that.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. condemned it just hours after it first saw the light of day.

“Bill 21 is an egregious assault on the principle of lawyer independence, which is fundamental to the legal professions’ integrity and the justice system at large,” said president Michael Elliott.

The bill is about one thing, he said: “Government control over the legal system and the professions working in it.”

The opening salvo centres on the makeup of the board that will oversee the new entity.

The majority of people on the Law Society board now are lawyers. Their numbers are diminished under the new setup. The trial lawyers said just five of 17 board members must be lawyers once the bill becomes law.

The number who may or may not be lawyers is variable. Three people will be appointed by the cabinet, which could conceivably pick lawyers. And the board will be pick another five, four of whom must be lawyers.

Two of the 17 members must be Indigenous (one of the cabinet picks and one of the board choices.)

As well, there will be an Indigenous council that will collaborate with the board to address the over-representation of Indigenous people who get processed through the criminal justice and child apprehension systems.

The trial lawyers are becoming veterans at fighting the NDP government. They sued over the overhaul of ICBC, objecting to the cap on minor injury claims, limits on the use of expensive expert witnesses during trials and the switch to using the Civil Resolution Tribunal instead the courts to settle claim arguments.

Given that track record, a new suit over the bill looks guaranteed.

The Law Society of B.C. — the very subject of the bill — also expressed deep concern. The changes fail to protect the public’s interest in using independent legal professions “not constrained by unnecessary government direction and intrusion.”

It is also readying a lawsuit.

The society, backed by the national group, also rapped Premier David Eby and Attorney General Niki Sharma — both are lawyers — last year on the same grounds for some criticisms of judges handling high-profile criminal cases.

Separately, Eby started a fight with the government’s own lawyers last year when his government outlawed their unionization bid and forced them into a union they didn’t want to join. That went to court as well, and is ongoing.

What’s shaping up is a replay of the arguments when multiple bodies and colleges regulating various health professions were collapsed into a much smaller number. Members lost a certain degree of control and fought back vigorously.

Eby isn’t shy about throwing his weight around when it comes to changing professional ground rules, including those in his own profession.

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