The Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA) is raising concerns over access to justice as the number of practicing law professionals in rural and remote areas of the province of dwindles.
FOLA, which represents 46 district and county associations in Ontario, put forward a motion last week that calls on the Law Society of Ontario to develop a strategy for attracting and retaining law professionals in underserved communities.
“We hear from communities all across Ontario about the lack of lawyers who are moving to fill gaps in service in smaller communities, and these are predominantly northern communities and rural communities,” said Douglas Judson, FOLA’s chair.
FOLA says it’s seeing people leave the profession without succession plans in place, often creating gaps in smaller communities.
Judson, a lawyer in a more rural area of northwestern Ontario, said the shrinking of the bar can also be attributed to a general shrinking of the population in some communities and the emerging trend of people practicing law virtually.
Even with advances in technology, Judson said, adequate access to justice requires locally based lawyers to allow for face-to-face interactions.
He said remote practices can especially impact the availability of legal services for people from low-income, vulnerable and marginalized communities.
“Having a lawyer who understands your community means that lawyer is going to do a better job advocating for you or representing your interests… I think it comes into play when we’re talking about cultural communities or racialized communities as well, having people understand those pockets of society make them more effective advocates for their clients.”
Calls for law associations, schools, the regulator to collaborate
FOLA says it plans to put forward its motion — for the development of a plan and to devote resources to attract and retain lawyers in underserved areas — to the profession’s regulator in the province, the Law Society of Ontario, at its annual general meeting that begins Thursday.
The motion will come as the law society’s new board members settle in.
“Hopefully they’ll be looking for some ambitious new projects to better serve the people of Ontario as a profession, and we’re optimistic that [the motion] will serve as a key plank of that effort,” said Judson.
LISTEN | FOLA chair Douglas Judson speaks on ‘access to justice’ problem in Ontario:
Up North8:02Ontario law association worried about lawyer numbers in north
The motion moved by FOLA is non-binding and does not propose a specific policy. Instead, it outlines recommendations, underscoring the need to implement financial strategies and incentives to encourage lawyers and licensing candidates to practice in underserved areas.
The motion also calls on the law society to consult with district associations in Ontario and law schools as they move forward with addressing the issue.
Jula Hughes, dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, said the motion resonates with her, especially since the northern law school was founded on the idea of improving access to justice in the region.
The school, which was established 10 years ago, focuses its curriculum around Indigenous law, natural resources and environmental law, and small-town practices.
Its legal clinic serves clients across the region, something the school calls an experiential learning opportunity for students to develop cultural competence skills.
Hughes said these offerings have already made a difference in the region, and speaks to the importance of regional laws schools.
Moving forward, the dean echoes the need for collaboration across the province, along with more support for northern universities.
“Universities in the north have challenges that are not the same as those in southern Ontario, and the universities and the government have certainly been talking about that, but I think that’s a component of it because legal education access is a key component to solving this problem.”
Hughes said law firms in rural areas also have a key role to play moving forward, and added that many large firms are now investing in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“I don’t see that much with the rural bars, and I think the law associations can play a role in really helping law firms strategize about how to respond to perceptions that it might not be as easy for a racialized lawyer or an early career lawyer to practice in the north.”
Lakehead’s law school dean also points to an integrated practice curriculum, at the Thunder Bay law school and at Toronto Metropolitan University, which eliminates the need for articling.
Hughes said the article can be a difficult component to law education in areas where the bar is shrinking, and eliminating steps that can speed up access to justice in northern, remote and smaller centres.