We implore the LSO to issue online exams or emergency licenses to practice law

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March 31, 2020

Re: The Law Society of Ontario Cancelled Solicitor Licensing Examination of March 17 and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action.

The Ontario government declared a state of emergency on March 17, 2020, the day the Solicitor Licensing Examination was scheduled to take place. The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has profoundly disrupted life around the world and in Ontario and there is no indication of when social distancing restrictions will be lifted. Consequently, the June bar exams taking place in their current in-person format would be very unlikely.

We are writing on behalf of those who were registered to write the Solicitor Examinations that were postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the final requirement in becoming licensed as lawyers, following completion of articling placements (where required) and the Barrister Examination.  We submit that postponing the examination is not an adequate decision for the LSO to make. To postpone the exams would be to do so indefinitely. There is no way to know when an end to current restrictions will take place and even where restrictions are lifted slightly, to be able to hold an in-person exam with 1000 or more people in a room is highly unlikely. There will also be an increase in the number of people registered for the exams as a result of the cancelled March exam. To delay the exam would be to delay the careers of thousands of qualified individuals in the face of an economic crisis.

While we strongly advocate for immediate action, if postponement is all the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) decides that it can offer, the materials from the March 2020 exams should stand. Those who were registered to write the March 17th solicitor’s exam spent months studying the materials, creating indexes and tabs within them. To expect them to pay for new materials and begin this process again is not reasonable and is what is currently proposed by the LSO.

This letter asks the LSO to act immediately in order to help licensing candidates fulfill their requirements and begin their legal careers in a time of high demand and crisis for the province.

In particular, we the undersigned respectfully propose that the LSO take immediate steps to ensure that licensing candidates do not experience any further delays in seeking admission to the bar by either:

(1) allowing candidates to take their exams on-line; or

(2) issuing an ‘emergency license’ to all licensing candidates registered for the March 17 Solicitor Examination.

Either approach would recognize the exceptional realities we face with this once-in-a-century pandemic, as well as the need to support access to justice in Ontario during this challenging time. 

The need for lawyers to continue to be licensed

The current crisis will lead to an increased demand for legal services. With the introduction of new legislation such as the  Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, there will be a need for more lawyers to help businesses, employers, employees and others to navigate new restrictions and regulations that continue to change. There is an increased demand for individuals to consult legal counsel as they try to access and maintain housing, social supports and new benefit regimes, enforce collective agreements, and much more. This is not a time to pause the licensing of new lawyers.

Options for Licensing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

1.  Online Exams

The world has had no choice but to shift into operating in a new online format. Converting the exam to an online format is a possible solution, at the very least for those who were registered to write the cancelled March 17 solicitor’s exam. Quebec has announced an early May exam to be administered online for candidates so as to ensure there is not a significant delay to their licensing process. The LSO could do the same.

While we acknowledge that there are potential logistical challenges with the online exam, it is a better option than the indefinite postponement of the examination.

2.  Emergency Exemption License – Issued in June 2020, as originally planned

Special measures are warranted to respond to the current COVID19 pandemic.  Extending an emergency exemption license to all licensing candidates registered to sit the March 17 Solicitors Exam would be a straightforward solution. In the face of great change and uncertainty, there are ways in which to guarantee that candidates have the minimum requirements to practice law.

These candidates have met all other requirements, including reviewing the solicitor examination materials in great detail, and are ready to practice. Pursuant to the LSO national mobility agreement, candidates transferring from other provinces and territories (including ones that do not have an examination requisite to their licensing requirements) are required to submit a ‘Reading Declaration’. They have all read the required materials for the solicitor exam therefore a similar declaration could be required of them.

Ontario is not alone in dealing with the predicament of licensing examinations facing delays. A group of law professors in the United States have written a letter whereby they recommend an emergency license be issued for licensing candidates in all states. Many of the ideas in this letter were gratefully gathered from their work. Their letter can be found here.

There is minimal risk to the public and the legal profession by allowing the current licensing candidates to obtain an emergency exemption license. It would serve as the most efficient way to field new lawyers onto the front lines in order to help meet the emerging legal challenges, rebuild damaged legal structures and navigate new statutes as a result of the pandemic.

The current practice of a temporary supervision agreement is not sufficient as it does not allow candidates to practice as full lawyers, which is what is needed in this crisis and for their employment prospects to succeed.  

We implore the LSO to act now

The fast pace and unpredictability of this pandemic is a clear sign that the LSO must act to ensure that lawyers are able to qualify and practice and avoid a mass backlog.

It is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will remain unresolved by June, or even by the fall. While we appreciate the importance of the bar examinations as a method for measuring minimum legal competencies, we do not believe that our legal careers should be placed on hold as a result. We must begin the hard work of rebuilding the lives of the communities in Ontario through upholding the rule of law and advocating for justice.