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Statement of principles debate too polarized

Hamilton personal injury lawyer Andrew Spurgeon worries the debate over the Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) controversial statement of principles (SOP) has become too polarized.

Following a contentious vote at the LSO’s Convocation in December, Ontario lawyers must now adopt and abide by a personal statement of principles that “acknowledges their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behaviour toward colleagues, employees, clients and the public.”

But the move already faces a court challenge launched by a law professor who claims it amounts to forced speech that violates the Charter. In addition, an online petition was recently launched to protest the requirements, accumulating almost 1,000 signatures from legal professionals. 

“It’s a little troubling the way that equality and freedom of expression have been presented as a binary choice,” Spurgeon, a partner with Ross & McBride LLP and an LSO bencher, tells

“In the course of debate, rhetoric becomes more intense and in order to make points, the language becomes more pointed," he says.

"Still, the debate has been fascinating and I’m glad to have been part of it. Ultimately, we’re just trying to feel our way through the fog to a brighter place."

Spurgeon says he understands the concerns that have led some lawyers to object to the SOP on the basis that it amounts to coerced speech.  

“A lawyer’s job is to stand up for people’s rights and freedoms and to the extent that they feel it infringes on those — even for a noble cause — by making them think a certain way or say things they don’t believe, it is legitimate to make those arguments,” he says.

However, Spurgeon says he believes those fears have been assuaged by developments in the SOP since it first came before Convocation in late 2016. The most recent guide issued by the LSO indicates that the regulator will not assess or even look at individual members’ SOPs.

“When viewed as it was intended, which is as a tool by which you can reflect on your own behaviour and actions towards others, I don’t feel it infringes on freedom of conscience, especially when you’re not forced to disclose the contents,” Spurgeon says.

“It’s hard to satisfy everyone, but I think the guide has done a good job of reconciling these two equally important principles without forcing a binary choice between them.”

The LSO has even provided two templates that lawyers and paralegals can use as the basis of their SOPs.

“It’s not limited to those," explains Spurgeon. "You can write whatever you want that meets the spirit of the policy goal. I don’t see it as an exceptionally onerous burden.”    

The SOP has its roots in an LSO report on the difficulties faced by racialized licensees, something Spurgeon says he reflects on when attending the Call to the Bar ceremonies that welcome new lawyers to the profession.    

“You see people crossing the stage and starting a new journey. Some will get further than others for many different reasons — some of those reasons are fair and some are not. Those which relate to the way they look are not reasonable and we have to redouble our efforts to make sure everybody has a fair shot to achieve their dreams,” he says.

“I see the SOP as a small step to enable as many people as possible to be accepted, respected and fulfilled in the profession," says Spurgeon.

“I’ve no idea what its long-term impact will be, but it’s important to try new things and attempt to make things better,” he adds.

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