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Single B.C. legal regulator legislation delayed to spring 2024

A new, single regulator for legal service providers would be in line with regulatory changes to other professions in B.C. over the past three years; but lawyers have voiced concerns about independence from government.
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The province is working on a legislative proposal of a single regulator for lawyers, notaries and a new category of regulated paralegals. 

Provincial legislation to reform the Law Society of B.C. will be introduced next spring, instead of this fall, as the government continues to iron out details of a new single legal regulator that promises to make many legal services cheaper and easier to understand for the public.  

“The ministry continues to work on a legislative proposal that would see the creation of a single regulator for lawyers, notaries and a new category of regulated paralegals. We are working towards introducing the legislation by the spring legislative session,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General of B.C. told Glacier Media Friday.

The single regulator could transform how the public accesses legal services and the extent of proposed changes has, as put lightly by the society’s president Christopher McPherson, “highjacked the entire year.”

Providing an update on the coming reforms at a meeting for society benchers (society board of directors) on Friday, McPherson only highlighted the most controversial matter from the society’s perspective: the independence of legal regulation from government and the need for a majority of lawyers to direct the new regulator.

“We don’t know where that’s going to end up; we’ll have to keep an eye on that,” said McPherson.

The ministry also stated, “No final decisions have been made on the structure of the proposed new board.”

However, it is understood that the new board will entail elected members, members appointed by the elected members plus members appointed through an independent process.

B.C. lawyers have been split on the matter, with some contesting bringing notaries and paralegals into the fold. But society benchers and the executive have been largely united in the new single regulator, arguing it will improve public confidence and trust in the legal system — the currency that gives the system credibility.

One issue that is being explored is the new ability of licensed paralegals to provide limited legal advice. This could bring down costs for legal work and broaden access for the public.

“The rationale for change is simple. Far too many people in B.C. cannot afford the cost of a lawyer,” stated the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General in its September 2022 intentions paper.

Another issue is attorney-client privilege. All parties appear to agree this will be maintained, but the question becomes how to regulate notaries.

According to Society of Notaries Public of BC executive director John Mayr, B.C. notaries support having to report to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), unlike lawyers, who view this as an infringement of that privilege.

Solicitor-client privilege in financial transactions has been protected by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2015; however, this has led to concerns about money laundering through lawyers’ trust funds — a matter highlighted by the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. in June 2022. The society’s disciplinary rulings often mention this matter and, therefore, the need for strong regulation of lawyers up to the point of respecting that privilege.

The ministry stated it has not yet decided on whether solicitor-client privilege will be extended to notaries and paralegals.

Furthermore, the society has made itself clear that it would litigate any new board composition that does not give lawyers a majority.

Changes to the legal regulatory landscape are in line with a suite of other professional regulatory body amalgamations by the current B.C. NDP government.

Since 2020, there have been several amalgamations of health-care regulators, such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, the BC College of Nurses and Midwives, and the BC College of Oral Health Professionals. In 2021, the government ushered in the B.C. Financial Services Authority, which absorbed the the Office of the Superintendent of Real Estate (OSRE) and the Real Estate Council of British Columbia (RECBC).

gwood@glaciermedia.ca