BC Law Society looking at regulating law firms

Task Force comes to Cranbrook, putting framework for new rules in place

  • Feb. 25, 2016 7:00 p.m.

Barry Coulter

A significant change in the way lawyers in B.C. are being regulated in underway. Law Society of British Columbia’s Law Firm Regulation Task Force is holding focus groups with lawyers around the province, and that process came to Cranbrook on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Herman Vann Ommen, first vice-president and task force chair was meeting with interested parties, lawyers and the law firms they represent, to discuss coming law-firm regulation, something new not just for B.C. and Canada, but even for other countries.

Vann Ommen spoke to the Townsman to discuss what these coming changes entail for the legal profession. He said that  historically, legal ethics were centred on individual lawyers.

“An individual lawyer has a duty not to act in conflict, they have duties to maintain confidentiality — all our duties were expressed in terms of the individual,” Vann Ommen said. “And that’s true of legal professions around the world.

Vann Ommen said that these days,  lawyers predominantly practice in firms. “Firms, we know now, are actually responsible for certain conduct,” he said. “For example, a law firm’s advertising is decided by the firm, not the individual. When a lawyer in a case acts on a conflict, usually it’s a committee of the firm that’s made the decision that it’s okay. And so it becomes inappropriate to discipline only the individual.

“We would still keep the individual duties, but what we will be saying is that firms are also going to be responsible for the behaviour they control. So that’s a way of getting at real actors.”

The same regulations still apply to individual lawyers. In a background paper on the subject, published these week on the legal website slaw.ca, Vann Ommen wrote that expanding the regulatory net to include firms is expected to actually lighten the regulatory burden on individual lawyers by shifting a degree of responsibility to firms.

It’s only recently that steps have been taken to apply regulatory measures to firms as well as individual lawyers.

“Certainly the time is due,” Vann Ommen said. “Australia made moves in this direction a decade ago, England maybe five years ago. It’s tied up with a bunch of other changes there, but this is certainly an aspect of the changes in those two countries. We always keep an eye on what’s going on around the world. And this has been a subject of comment by academics and people who are interested in regulating lawyers.

“It’s happening completely by circumstance that all the provinces from Nova Scotia west are engaged in the same exercise of looking at and proposing to regulate firms as well as individuals.”

Vann Ommen’s task force’s job is to propose a framework to put the regulations in place.

“After the consultation is finished my committee will put together a report recommending a framework. That will go to the benchers in June, maybe as late as September, and the benchers will then have to adopt it, or not (the Law Society’s Board of Directors are know as benchers). And then we’ll have to draft the precise rules.”

Moving forward, in other words, law firms are going to be responsible for the behaviour they hold.

“Every firm has a culture — the way the lawyers act,” Vann Ommen said. “Firms affect their lawyers’ behaviour, so we’re going to say to the firms you need to have policies and procedures in place to make sure your lawyers act in the highest standards.

“So if a lawyer, for example, has a series of complaints from clients about rudeness, or not returning calls, in addition to talking to that lawyer, we will call up the firm and say, ‘Okay, what’s going on, because this is something you should be interested in, and what are you going to do to make sure that lawyer in particular smartens up, and in general, how is this happening in your firm?'”

“So we want firms to be part of the solution in terms of reducing client complaints about lawyers.”