A Law Society of Ontario service that deals with harassment and discrimination by lawyers and paralegals saw a 50 per cent increase in complaints in the first half of 2018 compared to the last six months of 2017.
“I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg,” said lawyer Lai-King Hum, one of the individuals who serve as discrimination and harassment counsel (DHC). The free service is funded by the legal regulator but operates independently of it.
“I believe there’s now probably going to be a consistent level (of complaints.)”
The service’s mandate is to deal with allegations, both from the public and from members of the legal profession, that are based on the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Ontario Human Rights Code, including sex, race and sexual orientation.
The service says in its latest report that 125 individuals reached out with a new issue between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2018, averaging about 21 “new contacts” per month.
Of those 125 individuals, 46 complaints fell within the program’s mandate: 45 related to lawyers’ conduct and one related to the conduct of an articling student.
The remaining 79 complaints dealt with matters outside the program’s mandate, such as complaints about individuals other than lawyers and paralegals. A portion of these complaints were related to members of the legal profession but dealt with matters other than human rights code grounds, such as complaints about abusive work environments, many of which were made by articling students.
“The behaviours they reported included not being given legal work; being forced to run personal errands for their articling principal and/or their principal’s family; being subjected to verbal abuse and threats; not being paid; being paid less than minimum wage; verbally abusing and/or humiliating students in front of other lawyers/clients; and bullying,” the report states.
“A disproportionate number of the students reporting abusive employment relationships are students who received their training outside Canada … or racialized students. While these matters fall outside the mandate of the DHC, they are significant enough a trend that they warrant being brought to the law society’s attention.”
The report points to a number of possible reasons for the spike in complaints this year.
“The number of contacts to the DHC office increased noticeably beginning in the fall of 2017 as the #MeToo movement emerged,” the report states. “That higher level of contact has been sustained, with a number of callers citing the #MeToo movement as giving them confidence to come forward to report.”
The report also points to a November 2017 story in the Globe and Mail by Hadiya Roderique, about her experiences as a Black female lawyer, that was widely read in the legal community.
Of the 45 complaints about lawyers that fell within the program’s mandate, 34 were made by members of the legal profession:
Twenty-eight of those 34 complaints, representing 80 per cent, were made by women, more than half of whom identified as racialized and/or a person with a disability.
Six of the 34 complaints were made by men, all but one of whom identified as “being racialized, and/or of a minority religion, gay or a man with a disability,” according to the report.
The remaining 11 complaints about lawyers were made by members of the public.
“I think it’s a very important role that we play,” Hum said. “Even if people are not prepared to take any actual action about harassment or discrimination that they’ve faced, the fact that they provide us with the information will help us to determine how much of a problem there is in the profession. Without the data, it’s hard to say.”
Services provided by the discrimination and harassment counsel program include coaching for individuals who want to handle a harassment situation by themselves, facilitating mediation and advising complainants of other avenues of recourse, including filing a formal complaint of misconduct with the law society against a lawyer or paralegal.
The complaints about lawyers that fell within the program’s mandate include sexual harassment, such as “predatory texting, persistent unwanted contact outside of work, including late night phone calls; sexual advances and persistent pressuring of complainant(s) for sexual relationships; disparaging women in front of colleagues.”
There were also complaints from female members of the profession about being pressured to return early from maternity leave, as well as reprisals for having taken it in the first place.
Others complained of racial harassment, including verbal and physical threats, and systemic racism “in which racialized lawyers and students were denied opportunities for mentorship; denied access to desirable work, and assigned work that was non-legal work or work below their level.”
Hum said the program is reviewing its mandate to become more proactive, “such as providing education to law firms, going in and explaining what discrimination and harassment is, and what steps they can take.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant