One’s Own Self, Like Water

The Law Society’s demand for a “Statement of Principles” is a totalitarian values test

In my last post, I outlined the scope of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s demands that all lawyers subject to its regulation, including those who are retired or working outside Ontario, produce a “Statement of Principles that acknowledges” a purported “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” ― not only in the practice of law but “generally”. I also explained that no such obligation exists at present, because none is imposed by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other rules applicable to lawyers, as they now stand, and that it is doubtful whether the Law Society could lawfully impose such an obligation under its enabling statute.

I have not seen meaningful responses to these concerns. On the contrary, they have been echoed in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail by Arthur Cockfield. Instead, those who defend the Law Society argue that whatever limitation of our rights the Law Society’s demands produce, the limitation is justified if analysed under the proportionality framework of s 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also point to the fact that lawyers are already required, by s 21(1) of Law’s Society’s By-Law 4, to swear an oath upon entry into the profession.

I agree with the Law Society’s defenders that the “Statement of Principles” that it wants us to produce is indeed similar to an oath, and in particular to the oath required by s 21(1), which I will refer to as “the lawyers’ oath”. They are similar in nature, in purpose ― and in their uselessness and questionable constitutionality. I will discuss these points below, drawing heavily on the criticisms of the Canadian citizenship oath (and, specifically, of its reference to the Queen) that I have developed over the course of four years of blogging on this topic, and especially in an article on this issue published in the National Journal of Constitutional Law. (Indeed, though it was not the focus of my argument, I briefly discussed the lawyers’ oath in the article.) Some of those who defend the Law Society have sought to accuse its critics of hypocrisy over our purported failure to object to oaths, and especially to oaths of allegiance to the Queen. Whatever the rhetorical value of such accusations ― and I think that it is nil, since they do not refute our substantive objections ― this topic is not new to me.

Start, then, with the nature of the oath or “Statement of Principles”. Both are forced expressions of commitment to acting in certain ways. Though a “Statement of Principles” might, depending on the way in which it is formulated, ostensibly stop just short of being a promise, I think that any distinction between acknowledging an obligation and promising to fulfill an obligation is one without a difference in this context. In his National Post op-ed criticizing the Law Society’s demands, Bruce Pardy treated the “Statement of Principles” as a forced expression of support of support for the Law Society’s policies, which I think is quite right. As Prof. Pardy pointed out, in National Bank of Canada v Retail Clerks’ International Union, [1984] 1 SCR 269, the Supreme Court has condemned such demands as “totalitarian and as such alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada”. (296) Although in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 the Court made it clear that this holding did not apply to compelled statements of fact, this (wrongheaded, in my view) narrowing of the National Bank holding is not relevant here. But, as I have argued in my blog posts and article, coerced commitments are more than expressions of opinion. They are impositions not only on the freedom of speech of those who must make them, but also on their freedom of conscience. Oaths, as the Supreme Court explained in R v Khan, [1990] 2 SCR 531 work by “getting a hold on [the] conscience” of those who take them, notably ― but not only, as I shall presently explain ― by making the thing sworn to a matter of moral, and not merely legal, obligation. The  “Statement of Principles” is similar, in that it is an attempt to make every lawyer embrace, as a matter of his or her personal morality, and thus conscience, the principles set out in that statement.

The other way in which oaths typically impinge on conscience, and also a point of similarity between the lawyers’ oath and the “Statement of Principles” is that, because they typically impose vague obligations that go well beyond the requirements of any positive law, they demand frequent if not constant exercise of moral judgment about the precise scope of the duties being sworn to. As I wrote in my article, the lawyers’ oath

requires lawyers, among other things, to “protect and defend the rights of interests” of their clients; to “conduct all cases faithfully”; not to “refuse causes of complaint reasonably founded, nor [to] promote suits upon frivolous pretences”; to “seek to ensure access to justice”; and to “champion the rule of law and safeguard the rights and freedoms of all persons.” These (and the other requirements of the oath) are not straightforward obligations. Discharging them requires lawyers to think about just what their duties are. … [T]o a considerable degree, the judgment required is a moral one. In some cases, that is because the lawyers’ duties are couched in moral terms (like “faithfulness” …). In other cases, the degree to which one can and ought to fulfill these duties must necessarily be left to individual conscience. (How far must one go to “ensure access to justice”: does it require one to limit one’s fees? How much pro bono work need one do? Can one “ensure access to justice” while being a member of a state-enforced cartel devoted to raising the cost of legal services?) In other cases still, it is because the lawyers’ duties can conflict (for instance, when the defence of a client’s interests might suggest launching a “suit upon frivolous pretences”), requiring moral judgment about which is to prevail. In short, a lawyer must constantly, or at least frequently, rely on his or her conscience to determine just what it is that his or her oath requires. (152)

The “Statement of Principles” would be meant to do the same thing, requiring lawyers (those, at least, who take it seriously) to be constantly asking themselves what their general “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” requires. It is no answer that the requirement is merely to comply with relevant human rights legislation. Not only is no “Statement of Principles” necessary to achieve that, but this legislation does not actually apply to many lawyers, such as those who are retired and not engaged in the sorts of relationships or activities which such legislation covers. The whole point of a “Statement of Principles” is to go beyond the positive law.

These impositions on freedom of conscience ― and, of course, the compelled expression  of opinion that the lawyers’ oath and “Statement of Principles” also are ― require justification. I do not think that any exists. In my article, I take the Canadian citizenship oath through the Oakes proportionality analysis, and find that it fails at every step. (Interestingly, as I also note in the article, the Law Society itself dropped the mandatory oath to the Queen due to constitutional concerns.) Of course, the issues with the lawyers’ oath and the “Statement of Principles” are not the exactly same. Yet there are also some common points.

In particular, both supposedly serve the sort of “[v]ague and symbolic objectives” of which the Supreme Court told us to be wary in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519 while having a tenuous relationship to these objectives. The lawyers’ oath is unlikely to make many lawyers more ethical, or more committed to the Rule of Law. One is ethical, or a “champion of the Rule of Law”, because one believes in these things ― not because one was made to swear to them. Similarly, even the Law Society’s defenders tend to acknowledge that requiring us to produce a the Statement of Principles is not going to do much to make the legal profession more diverse or inclusive. A symbolic expression of commitment to a set of values, no matter how attractive, is no more necessary than a symbolic expression of commitment to one’s country, no matter how great ― which, I explain in the article on  the citizenship oath, and as Liav Orgad explained in more detail in his study of loyalty oaths, is to say not necessary at all.

This is all the more so since the Law Society explicitly states that the requirement to produce a “Statement of Principles” can be satisfied by the simple expedient of “adopting” one of the sample “Statements” supplied by the Law Society itself. Indeed, the Law Society’s defenders suggest that since we could easily “adopt” one of those sample statements, regardless of whether we believe in them, or some other “Statement” so vague and bland that, as Annamaria Enenajor put it to me on Twitter,  “a closet [sic] neo-nazi lawyer could get down with” it, the whole thing is really no big deal. This again is similar to the lawyers’ oath. I have no doubt that if Justice Abella chooses to re-join the bar after her retirement from the Supreme Court, she will feel no compunctions about promising to “champion the rule of law” ― even though it is a matter of public record that “[t]he ubiquitous phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her“, and that she prefers something called “the rule of justice”. But to the extent that the Law Soceity’s fellow-travellers are right, it is difficult to see how the “Statement of Principles” is meaningfully addressing a pressing and substantial concern, and it must fail the proportionality test for that reason.

There is, however, another possibility. As with the citizenship oath and the lawyers’ oath, while most people may be content to make a pretended commitment to ideas or principles they do not understand or indeed secretly despise, some are not. They take a thing of that nature, whether called an oath or a Statement of Principles, seriously. They agree with Robert Bolt’s Thomas More that “[w]hen a man takes an oath … he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again”. And, just like More refused to falsely swear an oath to regard Henry VIII as head of the Church, they will not tick off box on the Law Society’s form to acknowledge an obligation to promote ideals the Law Societey’s interpretation of which  they do not share, or indeed the Law Society’s authority to impose which they reject. As to such people ― as to those who refuse to live in the closet ― the Law Society’s demand is not a trivial, if useless, imposition. As prof. Pardy argues, and as the Supreme Court has long accepted, forcing people to endorse opinions that they do not share is totalitarian ― or at any rate no less oppressive than the government of Henry VIII. As to such people, the Law Society’s demands will, at all events, fail the “proportionality strictu sensu” test, because totalitarian demands for ideological compliance always impose a greater cost than whatever benefit the state (or, in this case, the Law Society) can hope to obtain by imposing them.

Beyond the dry terminology of proportionality analysis, it is important to understand that what is at stake here is neither more nor less than a values test for the practice of law. While some have resisted this implication (going so far as to argue that a requirement to produce a “Statement of Principles” is not a values test even though a requirement to provide it to the Law Society would be one!), others among the Law Society’s fellow travellers are quite comfortable with it. In their view, there is nothing wrong with a legal profession in which only people who hold the right values ― and those who are sufficiently unprincipled to dissemble about theirs ― are welcome to remain, while those who are deemed to be wrong, and who refuse to hide in the closet in response, are shown the door. The undesirables are not yet pushed out ― it may be that the Law Society’s policy is nothing more than a paper tiger, a “demand” that will not be meaningfully enforced. But it could also be a warning, and a test. Even if the Law Society does not try coercion now, acquiescence to its demands it will embolden it do so in the future. As others have argued, it will also show that the legal profession is supine enough to comply with the authorities’ attempts to impose orthodoxy on it. And this leads me to a final question for those who support the Law Society. Are you really so confident of always being among those whose orthodoxy will be imposed on others? Thomas More ― the historical one, the one who confiscated books and rejoiced in the burning of heretics ― was so confident. May you fare better than he did.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

7 thoughts on “One’s Own Self, Like Water”

  1. It’s been so long since I took it that I had to look up the oath to re-familiarize myself with the content. And of course, as you point out above, the differences between the scope of the oath and the scope of the pending obligation are not close to being similar.

    That said, I found this portion of the oath quite interesting:

    I shall champion the rule of law and safeguard the rights and freedoms of all persons.

    On my reading of this, all benchers who voted in favour of this pending obligation have breached their oath. Those benchers are not safeguarding the rights and freedoms of their fellow lawyers. To the contrary, this pending obligation is an outright attack on those rights and freedoms. Here’s hoping that those of us who refuse to comply with this pending obligation face the same consequences for that refusal as the benchers have faced for their breach of the oath.

    1. That will teach me to post late at night on the day of a hearing. The second sentence above should read:

      And of course, as you point out above, the scope of the oath and the scope of the pending obligation are not close to being similar.

  2. Leonid! Wonderful to read you on this topic. Thank you for the clear analysis. I am one licensee who will most certainly not comply with the Law Society’s requirement. I hope there are many others.


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