Since the Attorney General seems determined to create a species of half-trained lawyers and to have them regulated by the Law Society perhaps we ought to examine some of the mechanics of how that might work.
A chief function of the Law Society is the disciplining of lawyers, both in reaction to complaints from the public, and on its own volition. While the intake side of the discipline process is staffed by law society employees; staff lawyers who review and triage the complaints, the adjudicative function is performed solely by the Benchers, all of whom are part-time volunteers. They squeeze in their discipline committee assignments around the demands of their own busy practices.
In the result the current discipline process is a somewhat slow and creaky one. The discipline committee itself meets only monthly, and discipline hearings have to be scheduled around the availability of the Bencher judges, the accused lawyer and the lawyer’s lawyer, leading to long delays.
At the intake stage alone, complaints linger for many months before even coming to the attention of the discipline committee for a determination as to whether a citation will issue. The volume of complaints apparently is tasking the staff lawyers to capacity (or perhaps the reason is that, unlike private practice, the Law Society is a union shop?)
A review of the law society website reveals that the longest running case before the Benchers currently dates from 2009! Perusing the list of pending citations, it appears that a lawyer unlucky enough to be cited will wait, on average, a full year or more before they can have a hearing to either clear their name or learn their fate. Sentencing hearings are then typically four to six months later.
I for one believe that the present system is not serving the existing membership well. Justice delayed really is justice denied. Members deserve to have complaints against them dealt with promptly. Having a serious allegation hanging over a lawyers head for several year has serious professional and economic ramifications. The public deserve better as well, since, if a lawyer’s conduct has become problematic, a lot of damage can be done by that lawyer over the course of a few years while a citation is pending.
So, against the backdrop of a system that is already failing to meet the needs of the membership and the public, the Attorney General wants to over-burden the Society with the task of disciplining a whole new cadre of potential miscreants.
Even assuming that these new para-legals will be no more prone that fully qualified lawyers to run afoul of the rules, expanding the membership to include them will still increase the volume of complaints to be dealt with. There is a limit to the amount of time part-time volunteers can devote to the task of adjudicating these complaints- a limit which has already been reached.
Then there are those of us who harbour the suspicion that partially trained legal service providers may generate rather more complaints, especially during the freshman year of the new era, as the new providers find their legs.
So now what ? Do we expand the number of Benchers, to increase the pool of available adjudicators? begin using more non-Benchers to fill in hearing panels? or do we scrap entirely a governance model powered by volunteers, which has served us for over a century ?
Or do we perhaps shelve the half baked idea of allowing lightly trained para-legals to run amok through our justice system?