The Law Society’s role regarding public access to legal services

A recurring access to justice discussion has concerned the role of law societies in meeting the legal needs of the public. The Winter 2016 CBA National Magazine contains an article (“Should lawyers have a monopoly over the provision of legal services?”) arguing that lawyers are not meeting the public’s need for legal services, and that lawyers in England lost the right of independent self-regulation in part because their regulating bodies acted as anti-competitive monopolists. The authors, both lawyers, write, “The principal ethical imperative engaged by lawyers’ monopoly is our duty as a profession to provide access to justice.”

In British Columbia, Ian Mulgrew has penned an article (“BC law society sidelines paralegal access-to-justice initiative”) criticizing the Law Society of British Columbia for its approach to regulating legal services, opining that “the worsening access-to-justice crisis is due in part to the monopoly lawyers have on providing legal services” and calling on the monopoly to end.

The Law Society of British Columbia describes its function on its website (“About Us”) as, among other things, ensuring the public is well served by legal professionals and bringing a voice to issues affecting the justice system and delivery of legal services. The society has expressed concern about the inability of the average person to access lawyers’ services and has incorporated that concern into its strategic plan. One task under this rubric has been to support lawyers in offering unbundled legal services, a topic I discussed in a previous blog post. Other access-related activities include the society’s longstanding support for lawyers’ pro bono services; the work of its current Legal Aid Task Force; significant funding for access initiatives (including Access to Justice BC); ongoing participation in public education and awareness resources and events; and reporting and investigating alternative legal services delivery options.

The law society’s leadership on these issues is encouraging, including its examination of ways to expand legal service regulation to include new classes of people, not just lawyers. Although one of the projects — which allowed paralegals to make court appearances —has concluded, a recent report indicates that the law society continues to consider the issue.

Access to Justice BC exists to support and align initiatives intended to bring positive change to our legal system. It is a network of justice system stakeholders with the aim of encouraging collaborative, user-centred action and indeed a culture shift in the justice system.

This recent dialogue about the law society’s role in our legal system helps provide different perspectives on the regulation of legal services and sheds some light on the issues. As more is understood about the public’s unmet legal needs — including the unsettling statistics —I encourage lawyers, paralegals and the public to continue the dialogue and to let Access to Justice BC know how it can best support improvements to our justice system.