A motion set to be debated at a Convocation this week calls for the Law Society of Ontario to fix 2023 licensing fees at their 2022 level. Writing in The Lawyer’s Daily, the bencher moving the motion, Chi-Kun Shi, says her motion arises out of concern for “fiscal responsibility” and “especially” the survival of “small and sole practices”.
The motion, which is seconded by bencher Cheryl Lean, appears to be setting the stage for a 2023 bencher election in which the ‘Stop SOP’ slate hopes to campaign on the basis of fiscal restraint and reducing fees. In fairness, there will always be merit in pursuing fiscal accountability and value-for-money at the Law Society. None of us want to pay more than is necessary for our license.
But, respectfully, Shi’s reasoning is misleading and the motion is counterproductive. If adopted, it may well have the opposite impact on many of the firms she seeks to protect. That is because, by taking a blanket approach to freezing the Law Society’s budget, the motion ignores the critical yet under-resourced role of courthouse libraries in supporting these lawyers.
Ontario’s 48 courthouse libraries (or practice resource centres, as they are now known) are funded through a levy that forms part of lawyers’ annual fees. This funding flows to libraries through LiRN, which is the corporation tasked with overseeing and developing Ontario’s modern courthouse library system. The primary beneficiaries of courthouse library services are those in sole practice and small firms across the province.
Libraries are facing tremendous inflationary pressures and cost increases to their collections, subscriptions, and staffing. Yet their 2023 budget request is relatively small – consisting of just a $17 increase to the 2022 levy of $183. Impressively, LiRN’s budget submission to Convocation also discloses significant modernization efforts and a necessary expansion of the online resources and research tools that are now available at each library, made possible through LiRN’s bulk purchasing agreements. The annual cost of these library subscriptions, if purchased individually by lawyers, would be over $8,300.
Practically speaking, without courthouse libraries, the ability to provide legal services in many parts of Ontario and outside of large firms would be less viable, and certainly more costly for clients. Courthouse libraries enable lawyers to practice and clients to hire lawyers.
But from a policy standpoint, courthouse libraries are more than a convenience or efficiency. They play an invaluable role in ensuring that members of the bar, in all regions, meet high standards of competency. Libraries provide crucial resources, support, mentorship, and professional development opportunities for their local bar and visiting counsel. The availability of a well-stocked, properly staffed, and sustainably resourced courthouse library is thus critical to providing access to justice in all parts of the province. These goals – ensuring competency and facilitating access to justice – are statutory mandates of the Law Society that Convocation’s budget must fulfill.
So, as benchers consider the next budget and the campaign ahead, we encourage them to look to options to support our libraries that will achieve the competency and access to justice mandates of our profession. Here are some suggestions:
First, we can start by having an informed election debate, as a profession. The fact that annual fees are aggregated on the invoices we receive each year is unhelpful for those looking to better understand what services their fees are supporting. More granularity in billing, particularly in the lead up to the election, would be helpful. (By the same token, it would improve transparency if Convocation’s meeting materials were made public before the eve of its meetings.)
Second, we should strive to answer these complicated fiscal challenges with thoughtful policy solutions rather than simplistic cuts. For instance, it is unclear why only lawyers contribute to libraries. As the Law Society considers paralegals’ scope of practice, it may also consider whether these licensees ought to contribute towards law libraries as part of their own competency obligations. Paralegal contributions to LiRN would unlock new revenues for libraries that could relieve upward pressure on lawyers’ annual fees.
Finally, let’s put to rest red herrings. While some benchers have recently suggested that library funding ought to be sourced from the Law Foundation of Ontario, this is unhelpful and unsustainable. The Foundation’s cash flow is not consistent from year to year and depends on economic conditions and fiscal variables. That variability is incompatible with the needs of the modern courthouse library network envisioned by LiRN. It is also unrealistic given inflationary pressures, staffing costs, the increasing cost of collections, and the standard operating policies that LiRN is establishing for libraries. In any event, Convocation does not control how the Foundation chooses to allocate its funding, a significant portion of which is earmarked for Legal Aid. The Law Society cannot simply pass the buck to the Foundation. Doing so reneges on its commitment to LiRN’s mandate.
All this to say that our libraries are not mere perks of practice – they are central to the public interest mandate of our profession, and all benchers need to act like it. Debates about library financing must be approached with far more seriousness than the current motion and must prioritize our regulator’s statutory obligations. As we head into an election cycle, county and district law associations will be highlighting the professional governance, competency, and access to justice role that our courthouse libraries play. We encourage all law associations and individual firms and lawyers to hold both incumbents and new candidates to their record on these important issues.
Douglas W. Judson (he/him/his) is the Chair of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations, which represents Ontario’s 46 county and district law associations. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dwjudson.