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BC Law Society delays new decision on Trinity Western

Lawyers divided on how to proceed with Christian law school

BC Law Society directors debated how to proceed July 11 as they considered a request from their membership to reopen a vote on Trinity Western University‚Äôs proposed law-school graduates.  Credit: twu.ca

The Law Society of British Columbia delayed making a new decision July 11 on whether to allow graduates of Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school to practise in BC.

The BC Law Society had initially agreed to accredit the graduates in April, but a membership petition forced a special general meeting in June to reconsider the matter. Members at that meeting overwhelmingly urged the society’s board of directors to rescind its earlier approval and vote again.

The board’s approval in April was based largely on a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values and to insist that its students sign a covenant agreeing to uphold Christian biblical teachings, including no premarital sex and no homosexuality. Though many board members expressed their distaste for the covenant, they said their hands were tied by the existing legal decision.

Attendees at the June 10 special general meeting disagreed, saying the law society is responsible for setting the legal course in BC.

Law society directors faced three possible motions when they reconsidered the issue on July 11.

Calling the push from so many lawyers to reopen the vote “monumental,” director Jamie Maclaren offered to make a motion in September to accept the special general meeting’s resolution to reconsider.

Society president Jan Lindsay said that if benchers, as the directors are known, are to vote again on the issue, the process would be a repeat of the April one, with submissions from members and the public being invited, as well as time for TWU to respond.

As benchers argued about how many minutes people might have to speak at the Sept 26 meeting, bencher Joe Arvay remarked, “I can’t imagine another single, novel idea coming out. It’s just more paper.”

Director Tony Wilson offered to make a different motion: that the issue be put to a binding referendum of the full membership of the law society, some 11,000 lawyers. That might not happen until late September or October, if the motion is approved.

Director Martin Finch made a third notice of motion that any society decision be suspended until BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia lawsuits already pending concerning TWU’s proposed law school are heard in December.

TWU has said it is suing the law societies of Ontario and Nova Scotia for refusing to accredit its graduates. (Nova Scotia’s law society voted to conditionally accept TWU graduates, but only if the Christian university amends the discriminatory portion of its covenant or allows students to opt out of signing it.)

Meanwhile, the BC government faces a lawsuit of its own for approving TWU from gay plaintiff Trevor Loke, who says the approval would discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and religious grounds.

The government responded to that suit in court documents filed June 30, saying the decision to approve the school was within its statutory powers. The government has consented to 15 new programs at TWU since the enactment of the Degree Authorization Act (DAA) in 2002, the court documents note.

Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk approved TWU’s application in December 2013, saying the province’s Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed the proposed law degree and found it met the degree-program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

The lawsuit response says the government initially made its approval conditional on the BC Law Society’s approval of TWU graduates, then amended the terms in February to instead make it contingent on the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which had already approved the school in December.

“The benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia retain authority to refuse to approve a law program, notwithstanding the approval of the Federation of Law Societies,” the government response says. “The Minister’s consent under the DAA was subject to approval of the Federation of Law Societies.”