Bencher Elections, Then and Now

This week marks the start of the Law Society of Ontario’s 2019 Bencher Election, in which the province’s lawyers and paralegals will elect the directors of their governing body, as known as benchers.

Bencher elections are held every four years in accordance with the procedures set out in the Law Society Act and By-Law 3. Here’s how it works in a nutshell… All lawyer and paralegal licensees whose licences are not suspended on April 5, 2019 are eligible to vote. Lawyers vote for 40 lawyer benchers, 20 from inside Toronto and 20 from the regions outside the city. Paralegals will elect five paralegal benchers from across the province. (This year’s election is the first in which lawyer and paralegal licensees will vote simultaneously.)

All eligible licensees will have received their voting instructions by email and can vote online or by telephone. Voting opened on Monday, April 15 and closes at 5:00 pm on Friday April 30.

The winners will be announced by press release and on the Law Society’s web site once the counting and tabulation of votes has been completed. And the newly elected benchers will take office on May 23, 2019, the first sitting of Convocation after the election.

While waiting for the 2019 results, here are some historical highlights of elections past.

From oligarchy to “ambitious incompetents”

For the first 74 years of its existence, the Law Society’s governing body was appointed rather than elected. The first benchers, senior members of the bar including the Attorney General and Solicitor General of the province who were appointed under the first Law Society Act of 1797, simply selected their successors as needed from within the same close-knit legal community. Since no term of office was specified in the act, appointments were for life.  

Growing pressure to democratize the profession’s governance and eventual government intervention led to changes in the late 1800s. In 1871, the government passed An Act to Make the Members of the Law Society of Ontario Elective by the Bar Thereof. The new legislation provided that all lawyers in good standing could elect 30 benchers to serve for a fixed term of 5 years.

The prospect of expanding the governance of the profession beyond the senior bar was not universally supported. An editorial of the day predicted that this change would lead to the election of “ambitious incompetents” rather than the best qualified men[i].

The road to democracy

Full democratization of bencher elections took time. When the first election was held in 1871, certain democratic elements were still missing. There was no formal nomination process, no slate of candidates to choose from and no secret ballot. The ballot form required a signature and in the first bencher elections the voting record of every member was recorded by the Secretary of the Law Society.[ii]

A nomination process was introduced in 1912. But it was not until a major overhaul of the Law Society Act in 1970 that election procedures were significantly changed. The 1970 revision provided for the adoption of a secret ballot, increased the number of elected benchers from 30 to 40 and decreased their term of office from 5 to 4 years. Regional representation was also introduced, so the 1971 bencher election was the first in which representation was spread between 20 benchers from Toronto and 20 from other regions of the province.  

Women Benchers

In 1975, Laura Louise Legge became the first woman elected bencher. She went on to become the first woman to serve as treasurer in 1983. From 1975 she sat as the sole elected woman bencher in Convocation until 2 two more women were elected in 1983. From here, the number of elected women benchers grew slowly, very slowly. In 2015, 19 of 45 lawyer and paralegal benchers were women. 

Getting out the vote

Voter turnout is a significant metric in any election, and a perennial issue in bencher elections. Despite an increasing Law Society membership, voter participation has declined steadily over the past decades, dropping from a high of 75% in 1961 to just over 33% in the last bencher election of 2015. Past voting statistics show that light voter turnout tends to favour incumbents.

This year in an effort to encourage greater voter turnout among recent calls, several candidates have launched an initiative pledging to make a charitable donation for every vote cast by a lawyer who was called to the bar in the past 10 years.

Need more information about the current bencher election?  

Bencher Election 2019 Voters’ Guides

(includes the names, bios and platforms of the 146 bencher hopefuls are running this year)

Bencher Election 2019 FAQs

Bencher Election 2019 (Law Times)

[i] “The Benchers of the Law Society”, (Jan 1870) Canada Law Journal, 1-4.

[ii] Roy Schaeffer & Lydia Potocnik, ““To Create A More Satisfactory Mode”: A Legislative Summary of the Rules Respecting Election of Benchers of The Law Society of Upper Canada, 1797-1990” (1990) 24 Law Society Gazette 196 at 200.