Canada’s Governor General takes legal profession to task

Canada’s Governor General is appointed, not elected. The woman or man in the job represents the monarchy, largely as a ceremonial figurehead. But obviously, inevitably, the person in that role brings some individuality to the job.

For all of David Johnston’s famous down-to-earth charm, he’s been a  pretty low-key Governor General so far. But, among other things, Johnston has been a lawyer, professor, dean and university president. He is also the father of 5 daughters, three of whom also became lawyers. So when Johnston opened the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting in Halifax on Sunday, he had more than sufficient background to lay a substantive critique of the legal profession.

And he did. As detailed in this Ottawa Citizen account:

“We need a new model for professionalism in law,” he said. “To borrow a saying from a sister profession: physician, heal thyself.”

A former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, Johnston said lawyers such as himself enjoy a “social contract” with society: In return for self-regulation and a monopoly over the practice of law, he said, “We are duty bound” to improve justice and serve the public good.

Instead, he said the profession is failing to uphold its end of the deal.

Johnston cited legal log-jams in Canadian courts, where, basically, justice delayed becomes justice denied. But beyond Canadian courts and law schools, Johnston is also asking for a healthy critique of the entire profession, in all countries.

“How many lawyers ‘papered’ the deals that involved fraudulent statements of assets, liabilities, income and valuations?” he said.

“How many lawyers ‘sounded the alarm’ about conflict of interest in the web of financial transactions and creative financial instruments?

“How many lawyers were silent in the face of a pattern of deregulation which has left the economy naked to excessive leverage, and which any thoughtful observer knew was bound to have its inevitable pendulum swing?”

Among other points, Johnston argues that Canadian law schools don’t do enough to support attract a wide variety of law students or stay in touch with the ‘real world’. The legal profession as a whole, he says, fails to create a reasonable work/life balance, which typically penalizes women who want children as well as a legal career.

It’s always a risk, and a possible cause of controversy, when a Governor General deviates from pure ceremony. But Johnston came into the job saying he aspired to help a great country become even better. With that as his starting point, the response seems largely favorable. According to the same Citizen article:

It is rare for a Canadian Governor General to make such frank public speeches, but Rod Snow, president of the Canadian Bar Association, said he welcomed Johnston’s honest words.

“He talked about things that he knows,” Snow said. “He probably gauged that this audience wanted to hear something of substance and I think he probably got it right.”

Ontario Bar Association president Lee Akasaki said he was surprised by Johnston’s strong stand, but also agreed with it.

“We have to get the bar back on track, be more relevant to the people we serve and hopefully in doing that we’ll improve the image of lawyers,” he said.

What do you think? Is the legal profession part of the problem? Can it become a more useful part of the solution? And what might have to change for that to happen?

P.S. Read the text of Johnston’s address here.

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5 Comments on “Canada’s Governor General takes legal profession to task”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    All of Johnston’s observations and suggestions are relevant and needed.
    While lawyers should represent their clients, they should not be aiding them to break the law and get away with murder.
    Dare I suggest the same should be true for other professionals including doctors and priests?

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  2. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    “While lawyers should represent their clients, they should not be aiding them to break the law and get away with murder.” PK

    I can agree with the spirit of what you are saying, but I am afraid that we could end up going down a slippery slope. The assumption is innocent until proven guilty. Any lawyer who does not provide a competent and vigorous defense on behalf of his client, ends up being no better than an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney who values a conviction more than a correct/just conviction. I don’t think any of us like it, but that is our justice system. If the lawyers start being judge and jury, all trials will be held in the court of public opinion.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    Yes “innocent until proven guilty” but shouldn’t the lawyer try to find out if he/she is defending the guilty or the innocent and if guilty try to get the best deal rather than try to get them off scott free?
    On the prosecuting side, I would hope it would be more about finding the truth than just winning a conviction.
    Far too often it becomes a game to see who wins in the courtroom, without enough regard for the truth.

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  4. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Short of a confession, a defense attorney will not know of his client’s guilt or innocence. It is not for the lawyer to decide these things as that is left to juries.

    I can only imagine that number of cases overturned because of “inadequate defense” after a public defender “decided” his client was already guilty. It would be easy to say, “Hey, the guy’s a scumbag and he’s gotta be guilty of something.”

    My issue is more with the lawyers handling frivilous lawsuits, than those working criminal cases.

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Actually I am in favor of making it easier for prosecutors to get a conviction and this fits into what I said about other “professionals.”
    I think it is high time for doctors, the clergy and other “professionals” to stop hiding the truth from juries under the excuse of confidentiality. Isn’t this part of problem that comes up in the cases of pedophiles?

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