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BC law society could see new directors in wake of TWU vote

Two lawyers running for election say the benchers need new blood

Two BC lawyers are seeking election to the Law Society of British Columbia’s governing board, partially as a result of the society’s initial approval of Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed Christian law school in 2014.

The board of directors — known as benchers —needs new blood and more progressive thinking, say Vancouver lawyer Rishi Gill and Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan.

“The members were profoundly unhappy with what the benchers did and it may affect the elections,” Mulligan says.

Gill says the board’s initial willingness to accredit TWU graduates shows “lopsided decision-making.”

“It was a surprise to me and a lot of my colleagues,” Gill says. “There is a generational shift.”

At the centre of the controversy is TWU’s community covenant. For admission to TWU, students must agree to uphold Christian biblical teachings, including no sex outside heterosexual marriage. Failure to uphold these commitments, according to the student handbook, could result in discipline, dismissal or a refusal to readmit a student to the university.

Gill says many benchers said they found the covenant abhorrent. “I do too,” he says.

The law society directors initially agreed to accredit TWU graduates in April 2014, but a membership petition spearheaded by Mulligan forced a special general meeting that June to reconsider the matter. There, lawyers overwhelmingly urged the society’s board of directors to rescind its earlier approval and vote again.

The benchers agreed to hold a referendum in which BC’s 13,530 practicing, non-practising and retired lawyers voted 74 percent against the school being approved.

The benchers rescinded their approval by a vote of 25 to one on Oct 31, 2014.

“At the end of the day, lawyers said, ‘No, that’s wrong,’” Gill says.

Gill believes the issue has lowered the law society in the eyes of the public whose trust it is sworn to uphold.

“I think it’s important to have people a bit more progressive than in the past,” Mulligan says.

“It would be helpful for the discussion to have diverse voices,” Gill adds.

TWU sued the BC law society in December 2014 for rescinding its initial approval. The case was heard in August 2015 in BC Supreme Court. TWU’s lawyer argued that the law society should regulate academics, not morals. The judge has not yet released his ruling.

“The issue may well wind up back before the benchers depending on which way the judge rules,” Mulligan says.

The law society’s initial approval was based largely on a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that upheld the university’s right to teach Christian values and to insist that its students sign the community covenant. While many law society board members expressed their distaste for the covenant, they said their hands were tied by the existing decision. Attendees at the June 10 special general meeting disagreed, saying the law society is responsible for setting the legal course in BC.

If the case does return to the society for another decision, it will more than likely be after the law society elects new benchers.

Election ballots, mailed to BC’s lawyers, are due back Nov 16, Mulligan says.

“I believe the benchers got the issue wrong,” Gill says, though he hastens to add that much thought went into the benchers’ debate before the vote.

But the role of lawyers is to uphold the constitution, he says, and a vote to, in effect, approve the covenant goes against the constitution.

It has nothing to do with the quality of legal education TWU might provide, he stresses.

“What if it was not homosexual relationships we’re talking about? What if it was inter-racial marriage?” asks Gill, who notes he’s married to a Caucasian woman.

Gill believes the TWU case will eventually wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada, one way or another.