New Zealand Law Society - Ontario's anti-discrimination and harassment programme

Ontario's anti-discrimination and harassment programme

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View of downtown Ontario

There are about 50,000 licensed lawyers and 7,500 licensed paralegals working in the largest of Canada’s provinces, Ontario, all of whom are regulated by the Law Society of Ontario.

To provide support for 57,500 or so legal professionals, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has long had a Discrimination and Harassment Counsel Programme (DHC Programme) in place to address harassment and discrimination issues.

Like the New Zealand Law Society’s helpline, Law Care, the DHC Programme is a service open to anyone in the province who has experienced or witnessed discrimination or harassment by a lawyer or paralegal. However, this programme has a much broader mandate than Law Care, which deals with sexual harassment and bullying, and applies Ontario’s Human Rights Code when looking at cases of harassment and discrimination generally.

In short, the Code prohibits actions that discriminate against people based on a protected “ground” or a protected “social area”.

There are 14 protected grounds and they apply to a person’s identity:

  • Age,
  • Ancestry, colour, race,
  • Citizenship,
  • Ethnic origin,
  • Place of origin,
  • Creed,
  • Disability,
  • Family status,
  • Marital status (including single status),
  • Gender identity or expression,
  • Receipt of public assistance (in housing only),
  • Record of offences (in employment only),
  • Sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding),
  • Sexual orientation.

The five protected social areas in the Code are accommodation (housing), contracts, employment, goods services and facilities and membership of unions and trade and professional associations.

Why was it established?

“The DHC Programme grew out of LSO initiatives in the late 1990s to deal with both sexual discrimination and harassment, as well as racial equality, and issues of equity and diversity, within the profession,” says Lai-King Hum, one of the Counsel in the DHC Programme.

“It was conceived to be a ‘safe’ space where such persons can receive confidential and free information and support. The DHC will actively listen, support and provide a summary of possible recourses or other services that might assist the person.”

If all parties involved consent, the DHC provides a free mediation service and will attempt a resolution.

While the Law Society of Ontario funds the Programme, the offered counselling services operate independently.

“All information received by the DHC is held in strict confidence, and not shared with the LSO except for anonymised statistical data on the number and nature of new contacts with the programme every six months,” says Ms Hum.

How does the DHC Programme operate?

“On a technical basis, the DHC Programme has a single telephone line and email address that is accessed by the three appointed DHC on a pre-determined schedule. Anyone contacting the DHC Programme will have the call or email returned by one of the DHC.

“The three DHC then share the data gathered from their contacts for the purposes of creating the anonymised data for the reports to the LSO.”

High levels of harassment and discrimination

“I was recently a panel speaker at an event hosted by the LSO and others for International Women’s Day. I asked the audience of about 300 to raise their hands if they had experienced or knew someone who had experienced sexual harassment or discrimination. Over half the audience raised their hands,” says Ms Hum.

A month before this event Ms Hum says the LSO released a survey it had conducted among law students in Ontario.

The survey received a 28% response rate and found it a very helpful snapshot of the profession’s feelings on the harassment and discrimination issue.

“The survey found that one in five current or recent articling students who completed the survey faced ‘comments or conduct’ based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, citizenship, disability or other personal characteristics.

“It also showed that 17% of respondents felt they faced unequal or differential treatment related to such personal characteristics.”

Ms Hum explains that it is difficult to find reliable data on the extent of all forms of harassment and discrimination within the Ontario legal profession. In fact, the LSO has, over the last few years, had consultations about challenges faced by racialised licensees, which resulted in a report in December 2016 with recommendations on how the issues of systemic bias can be addressed. The DHC Programme is conceived as a key component of the LSO’s initiatives to address issues of systemic bias. To help with this, the DHC Programme serves a double function.

“Not only do we provide information and support to those who contact us, but the DHC Programme is also intended to provide the Law Society with data to determine the extent of issues of harassment and discrimination.

“What we do know, from available surveys and reports, is that issues of harassment and discrimination in the profession are serious and ongoing.

“What we also know is that what we see in the DHC Programme is likely only the tip of the iceberg, as not everyone who has experienced discrimination or harassment contact us.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be many confidential settlements of issues, and also that many students, lawyers or paralegals, choose not to make complaints because of the fear of consequences on their careers,” Ms Hum says.

It is interesting to note that the anecdotal evidence in Ontario has similarities to the New Zealand legal profession.

In both Ontario and New Zealand, some firms have been exposed as dealing with problems internally, and have done for years, and affected legal professionals have publicly shared that they actively chose not to make complaints because they feared repercussions on their careers.

On a more positive note, law societies are starting to reach out to each other to tackle the problem of harassment and discrimination in the profession on a global scale, working together on how to approach and implement both education and support systems to help their legal professionals. This is an important step toward ridding the profession of this ongoing problem.

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