Legal aid lawyers push to unionize
Steven Barrett decries the “antiquated exclusions” in the Labour Relations Act.
This week Law Times looks at the three-year battle waged by Legal Aid lawyers to unionize. Even though most other public sector lawyers are able to collectively bargain, Legal Aid Ontario has refused to recognize its employees’ chosen representative.
Legal aid lawyers have launched a constitutional challenge, They allege that the employer’s refusal violates s. 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The matter is scheduled to be heard on December 5, 2016.
“I shouldn’t have to be going to court on their behalf to try to compel Legal Aid Ontario to respect these lawyers’ Charter rights to collectively bargain,” says lawyer Steven Barrett, of Goldblatt Partners LLP, who is representing the group.
“They’re antiquated exclusions. They make no sense any more. There is a constitutional right to bargain and it should be respected,” Barrett says of the Labour Relations Act exclusion [of lawyers from the definition of “employee”].
“Maybe with a new minister, a new attorney general, the time will come where the government will make it clear to Legal Aid Ontario that as a public agency, a government agency, it’s unacceptable to refuse to bargain with their employees.”
Barrett says LAO has stonewalled the lawyers and refused to even meet with them.
Some Legal Aid lawyers have also filed a complaint with Ontario’s Pay Equity Commission. They are asking for a job evaluation to examine whether Legal Aid lawyers, who are predominantly female, are paid fairly in comparison to their male counterparts.
“Barrett says a similar complaint was previously rejected on the basis that the complainants did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that the staff lawyer position at LAO can be deemed “a female job class” for the purpose of the Pay Equity Act.
“If the staff were unionized, they’d be entitled to disclose that information, but because LAO has refused to recognize the Society [of Energy Professionals] as their bargaining agent, they weren’t able to get the information they needed,” Barrett says.
But the information they needed has since come from an interesting place, the complainants say. When the LAO lawyers launched their Charter challenge in regards to their bargaining rights, former legal aid CEO Bob Ward submitted a sworn affidavit in which he “bragged” that by the end of 2015, two-thirds of LAO lawyers were women, says Barrett.
“They’ve now conceded whatever the pay equity process had earlier determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence [to support],” he adds.