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Les Leyne: Tired of arguing, NDP cuts off debate on bill that reduces power of lawyers

The NDP have unilaterally declared debates over multiple times in the past few years.
B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria. TIMES COLONIST

Opposition critic Todd Stone stood up early Tuesday afternoon and pleaded with the NDP government not to shut down debate on the hotly contested bill that rewrites the oversight of lawyers in B.C.

Government House Leader Ravi Kahlon followed him by serving notice that debate would be curtailed on another bill. But he held off on the Legal Professions Act.

Did Stone win the day? Did he actually change the NDP’s mind?

Fat chance. He just won a reprieve, until 6:15 p.m., when Kahlon triggered the guillotine on debate and lumped it in with two other bills the NDP is tired of arguing about and served notice they would all be passed Wednesday night regardless of what critics have to say.

It’s become the NDP’s go-to move toward the end of legislature sittings. They have unilaterally declared debates finished multiple times in the past few years, on important bills about forestry changes, charging for freedom of information requests and sweeping housing changes.

So the now-routine parliamentary move was executed late Wednesday night in the face of the usual protests from opposition MLAs, but with a minimum of fuss.

They got away with it again.

Stone was speaking at a point where MLAs were arguing about the seventh of more than 300 clauses, with only two days left before the legislature adjourns. “There is no way that this bill will receive the scrutiny that it requires, that it demands,” Stone said. It was passed after just 30 of 317 clauses were debated.

But that was exactly why closure was ordered.

The bill has turned into a big headache for the government outside the legislature and a key point of attack for critics inside.

So better to slam it through and move on.

It’s been years in the making and was designed with the intention of making the law more accessible to people and enhancing independent oversight of the legal profession.

Notaries public will have their scope of practice broadened and a new designation — registered paralegals — will be allowed to handle routine legal matters.

The Law Society, which oversees and regulates the conduct of lawyers, is merged with the Notaries Public Society and renamed Legal Professions B.C., with a different makeup on the board.

The number of lawyers is diminished, depending on some variables, and two of the 17 on the new roster must be Indigenous.

A new Indigenous council is being created to address the over-representation of Indigenous people processed through the criminal justice system.

From a working lawyer’s perspective, it cuts into their turf and reduces their control of their own oversight.

So the line of attack that developed as soon as the bill was introduced centred on the idea that the NDP was attacking their independence and taking control of the legal system.

It’s the latest in a series of skirmishes that Premier David Eby, a lawyer, has started with his own profession.

After government in-house lawyers spent years organizing to form their own union, the government rushed in a law that blocked them, and forced them to join an existing public sector union.

It violated all the NDP tenets about union rights and antagonized the key staff members in their own government, to boot.

The government lawyers, the national association of Crown counsels and the Canadian Bar Association, all came down on him over that move.

BC United MLA Michael Lee said Wednesday the phrasing in the bill “suggests that the practice of each legal profession is somewhat harmful to the public.”

He said the latest objection from the Canadian Bar Association says it has held 13 consultation sessions and all of them underscored the continuing concern about many clauses in the bill.

Attorney General Niki Sharma said the bill meets all the criteria that groups required during the preliminary work that went into drafting the bill.

The moves prompted lawsuits that are still in the works and there have been fervent promises from lawyers that at least one more lawsuit is guaranteed over the changes.

The NDP’s apparent thinking is that since the lawyers are going to sue the government over the bill anyway, they might as well have the arguments play out quietly in court, rather than in the legislature.

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