Law society on the fence for now

Vote deferred on whether to accept grads from school that discriminates against gay people

Rosie Mullaley
Published on June 12, 2014

The Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador has made a decision on whether or not to accept graduates from a proposed law school that doesn’t tolerate homosexuality.

And its decision is not to make one — at least not yet.

In a meeting held Friday in St. John’s, the association’s benchers — similar to a board of directors —  were supposed to vote on whether to allow graduates from a proposed law school at Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, B.C., to practise here.

The university plans to open its law school in 2016.

In May, TWU announced it is launching lawsuits in Ontario and Nova Scotia, where the provincial bar associations have voted not to accredit graduates.

So on Wednesday, benchers here agreed to defer making a final decision until those legal actions have concluded.

While TWU — a privately owned Christian school — has been lauded for its quality academic and athletic programs, its strict religious rules have triggered controversy across Canada.

TWU requires students and staff to sign a “Community Covenant,” a contractual agreement that includes a provision prohibiting “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

Many groups across Canada are appalled that provinces would even consider accepting law students from a school that discriminates based on sexual orientation. They call it institutional bullying.

Others say rejecting those graduates would penalize students for their religious beliefs.

The 21 benchers in this province, including four laypeople, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Brenda Grimes, executive director of the law society in this province, which regulates the practice of legal professionals, opted not to comment when contacted by The Telegram Wednesday.

Instead, June Perry, who handles communications for the law society, referred The Telegram to the society’s website for its official statement.

“They have nothing else to say at this time,” Perry said.

In the website’s statement, the society said since the issue involves competing Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it may ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court of Canada.

It added that the Federation of Law Societies of Canada is forming a committee to review all the national requirements.

“The legal questions regarding discrimination are not simple and will be debated at a national level through the court processes already engaged,” the website states.

“A further review of the national requirements is underway. The law society is committed to a national approach on the issue and, like everyone else, awaits guidance from those initiatives. TWU is not expected to produce graduates from a law school program until 2019 at the earliest.

“Under these circumstances, benchers resolved to place the question on whether graduates of TWU law school will be accepted for admission to the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador as student-at-law, in abeyance.”

The Law Society of Upper Canada — Ontario’s regulatory body —voted 28-21 to deny TWU graduates from practising in that province. Many of its members condemned the TWU’s policy, calling it “abhorrent.”

The Nova Scotia Barristers Society conditionally voted to approve accreditation of TWU’s law school — but only if it drops the policy prohibiting same-sex intimacy.

The Law Society of British Columbia had originally voted 20-6 to approve lawyers from TWU. However, it agreed to hold another vote after overwhelming backlash from the legal community, calling for the society to withdraw its approval.

In the second vote, held this week, B.C. lawyers overwhelmingly voted — by a margin of 3,210 to 968 — to reject TWU’s plans to open a law school.

While the result is not binding, it could influence the benchers’ decision and help rebuke the school’s policies.

The Law Society of New Brunswick is expected to vote June 27.

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that B.C. could not refuse to accredit teaching graduates from TWU because of its covenant.

However, some believe that decision would be different if voted on today, because gay and lesbian rights have advanced.

Twitter: @TelyCourt