Interview with CBA President Steeves Bujold
New CBA President discusses his priorities, why legal professionals must earn the public’s trust and his plans to advance the rights of trans and non-binary people.
CBA National: What are the biggest challenges facing the legal profession as you start your mandate as CBA president?
Steeves Bujold: The erosion of the rule of law is a major challenge today. There are examples of this in Canada, and more serious ones in other democracies. There’s a lot of cynicism and disengagement toward the basic tenets of democracy. We’re also seeing more and more attacks on judicial independence. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that, in our society, when we disagree with a judge’s decision, the recourse is not to attack them or ask for their removal but to appeal those decisions. Judges who’ve shown exemplary behaviour should not be afraid of repercussions for the decisions they render. Making matters worse are the current difficulties we see in our legal system—access to legal services, costs, delays, lack of resources. We must find solutions, as all of that undermines the public’s confidence in our courts. If we cannot address these issues, people will lose faith and use avenues other than the legal system to solve their differences. In a democracy, the social contract suggests that people should turn to a judge, an independent third party, to settle their differences. The other challenge that our members face is their well-being. Lawyers work in a very competitive field and experience a lot of stress. In addition, younger lawyers cannot access the profession as easily as their predecessors did.
N: What role can the CBA play in the context you just described?
SB: The CBA will continue to advocate for a better legal system, adequate funding and adequate resources to allow the system to best respond to the needs of Canadians and businesses. By focusing on this issue, the Association will help reaffirm the rule of law and the trust that people have in the legal system that is available to them. I also intend to use my term to speak more often about the independence of the courts and why we must strive to protect it.
N: What other priorities do you have?
SB: We must ensure that our members have the tools and resources they need to succeed and develop professionally, without compromising their well-being. That remains a key issue. More than two years into the pandemic, there is a lot of fatigue in the legal community. Another priority is talking about the lived reality of trans and non-binary people in Canada. As the first CBA president with a same-sex spouse, I want to be an ally to the trans and non-binary communities in Canada. There is a lot of work to be done to help people better understand their experience and to adapt our legal system to better respond to their legal needs and to strengthen their trust in that system.
N: There are fears that some of Canada’s democratic institutions are working in ways that deprive certain groups of their rights. For example, we see provincial governments invoking the notwithstanding clause more often—a democratic instrument that can ultimately be used to limit our rights. Does this worry you?
SB: There are limits, necessarily, to every right. We are constantly looking for that balance between the rights of some and the rights of others, and also between certain rights in relation to one another. It’s a readjustment we’ve had to make since we adopted our Charters, as our societal values and people’s values evolve. Human rights don’t advance in a straight line—their evolution sometimes takes us in a new direction, which may seem a step backward to some people. As legal experts, we must have faith in our courts and wait for those debates to be settled. Our Charter includes a unique element—the notwithstanding clause, and its use has not been clearly delineated thus far. Without legislative amendments, our courts will be responsible for interpreting its scope or delineating its use if appropriate. Such decisions can only be issued after lengthy debate that we hope will be reasonable and respectful.
N: How can the problem of access to justice be solved?
SB: It’s like our health care system. We’re trying to find a delicate balance between quality justice and accessible justice. Quality requires increasingly complex procedures and longer hearings to get to the bottom of each relevant question. But if our legal needs are not extremely urgent, we must wait a long time — too long — before a decision or a ruling is made. Decisions require looking at multiple factors. First, we must accurately assess what is happening—the delays, volume, and resources available to a court to render an enlightened decision. Without conclusive data, solutions can only be approximate. We then need to allocate sufficient resources. It’s concerning that our judges don’t have enough clerks, courtrooms or basic resources at their disposal. Clearly, there is a general labour shortage at the moment. Still, when people experience an injustice, they need to find a solution, as the consequences affect them as deeply as a health emergency. It’s why the state must allocate resources accordingly. A significant investment is required both in terms of staff and technology if we are to take full advantage of the progress made during the pandemic. Likewise, each lawyer and each legal system participant must pose questions about the resources allocated to each area. We must always think about proportionality when using legal resources. It’s another difficult balancing exercise, but it must be done.
N: How can the CBA help law firm and legal department leaders deal with all the changes that we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic?
SB: First, I have to highlight the excellent CBA Task force report on justice issues arising from COVID-19. It includes a great deal of observations and guidelines regarding the provision of legal services in a virtual context. I also want to draw attention to our professional development initiatives. Thanks to our virtual tools and best practices, we continue to be a focal point in terms of information for our members. Still, we must be in listening mode to understand the difficulties that our members experience. Working in a big city is not the same as working in small communities. Working for a small law firm is not the same as working for a large one, or for a big company’s legal department, or as a government lawyer.
N: Retaining young lawyers has become a big issue for law firms these days. What are you hearing from your colleagues?
SB: Competing for the best brains is a challenge in all professions. In law, we want to have our fair share of new talent. We want our profession to be strong, with well-trained, skilled professionals that can maintain the legal profession’s place in society. To do that, we need the new generations to see themselves reflected in our profession. We need to spark the interest in high school, CEGEP, college and university students, and make them aware of all the possibilities that being a lawyer or notary can offer them. Keeping an open mind about the unbundling of legal services across Canada is also important. We need to encourage innovation sandboxes and pilot projects that focus on innovation and creativity, while also ensuring that quality legal services are delivered and the public is well protected. We must be creative to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the public, especially since most people don’t have access to quality legal services.
N: A last word before ending our Q&A?
SB: I would like to highlight that 2022–23 looks to be a very promising year. We’ve been able to stabilize our Association despite the difficulties created by the pandemic. Several key people have joined the Association, including our new CEO, Johanne Bray, who is doing extraordinary work. Her vision and experience are incredible. Keep watching what she’s doing and, like me, you will be impressed.