No rules govern LSO bencher election fundraising; ‘reform’ needed, lawyers, candidates say

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (April 24, 2023, 9:49 AM EDT) -- No rules govern fundraising or spending for the Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) bencher election, an issue which lawyers and candidates alike have raised as an area “ripe for reform” as it leads to glaring “inequity” and “unfairness” in campaigning.

LSO spokesperson, Jennifer Wing, confirmed to Law360 Canada that “there are no rules regarding election spending/fundraising,” noting that there is an “understanding that licensees are to conduct themselves professionally and ethically.”

Over 100 candidates are running in the 2023 bencher election. However, campaigning has been dominated by two organized groups: the Good Governance Coalition (GGC) and the FullStop Team.    

The StopSOP Slate, which had 22 candidates elected in 2019, relaunched this year as the FullStop Team to “stop BLOAT. Stop CREEP. Stop WOKE.” The Good Governance Coalition, which launched in October 2022, was formed to bring “good governance back to the Law Society of Ontario.”

Both groups have campaign websites with donate buttons, but since there are no rules directing caps on fundraising or disclosure of donors, the parties themselves dictate transparency on the issue of funds.

Law360 Canada reached out to both the GGC and the FullStop Team to ask how much money had been raised, how the money was spent and whether a list of donors would be released.

Atrisha Lewis, bencher candidate for Good Governance Coalition

Atrisha Lewis, bencher candidate for Good Governance Coalition

Atrisha Lewis, a bencher running for re-election as part of the GGC, said she can’t speak to the exact amount of money raised because the coalition is “still in a process of fundraising.”

“Our fundraising process hasn’t ended yet, but I’m happy to provide that information later if the FullStop Team also provides that information,” she added.

Along with the GGC’s website, money has been spent on sending out a campaign mailer, which “costs a lot of money,” as well as business cards and leaflets candidates could hand out, Lewis explained.

“We’ve used it for advertising, so we’ve put an ad in the ORs [Ontario Reports]. We have used some paid advertising on different social media platforms. We've also used money for voter contact operations to reach out to people during the election to encourage them to vote,” she said, noting that the GGC will not be releasing a list of donors.

“Some of our donors have expressed a desire for confidentiality,” she added, stressing it’s important for the GGC to maintain that. However, she noted, “it was very important to us that we only accept contributions from lawyers and paralegals in the province of Ontario.”

In response to questions about fundraising and spending, FullStop Team campaign manager, Lisa Bildy, said, “the campaign has mainly been managed by me, volunteering my time. Others working on the campaign are volunteers too. Most of the funds received have come from the candidates themselves.”

“A modest number of additional donations from rank-and-file lawyers in the province have rounded out the kitty,” she added.

The FullStop Team did not divulge how its money had been spent, how much it raised and whether or not it would release a list of donors.

In an interview with Law360 Canada, Lewis stressed she “absolutely” believes rules around election fundraising and spending should be put in place as it’s an area that’s “the most ripe for reform going forward.”

“I think there should be rules about how much can be fundraised and spent, but more importantly than that, I think there should be rules about where the money’s coming from,” she explained, noting that “it’s not a problem if licensees are passionate about a candidate, or a group of candidates, and want to contribute,” but it can be “very problematic if there’s outside organizations who are contributing.”

Lewis recently spoke with John Paul Rodriguez for the Justice in Pieces Guest Speaker Series, where he raised an example of outside influence.

Rodriguez, she said, questioned a scenario where an “AI tech company who wants to have its tech passed or approved regulatorily by the law society” decides to “find a bunch of candidates and throw a lot of money at it.”

“That can be a highly problematic scenario. Or similarly, there could be organizations who have special interests, along social values, who could also be contributing and funding campaigns as well,” she added, noting that she would “love to see rules on limiting contributions to only licensees.”

This is “one of the reasons why it was very important to the Good Governance Coalition to ensure that our money was only given to us by people who could vote, so we weren’t ‘bought by outside interests,’ ” she explained.

While Lewis would like to see reform, she thinks campaign funding and financing should also be examined generally.

“I was shocked to learn that sending a mailer out cost, I think, approximately $60-$80,000, depending on what you’re sending. That’s not really accessible for the average lawyer who’s running,” she said, noting that “in terms of wanting to have a representative Convocation, it’s really important that we’re not introducing new barriers for people.”

Lewis acknowledged that the “advantage of running as part of a group is there’s a pooling of resources.”

“I mentioned we accepted donations from licensees themselves, but our candidates also contributed what they could,” she said, highlighting the ability a conjoined effort offers to split costs and make campaigning more manageable.

“I think there should be a look at rules around spending just to ensure accessibility to the Convocation,” she emphasized.

According to Lewis, the Good Governance Coalition has “specifically committed to looking at electoral reform,” which would include finance reform.

“I think we do need to look at this issue. I think it’s really important. I think a lot of licensees were frustrated with how this election has unfolded, and I get it, I completely understand. I would like to see some real changes in the next bencher election,” she added.

Although neither group would disclose donor information, at least one association is known to have donated to a campaign in this election: the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA).

Anita Szigeti, Criminal Lawyers’ Association

Anita Szigeti, Criminal Lawyers’ Association

CLA member Anita Szigeti learned of the organization’s donation to the GGC via Twitter, and she had some questions.

Szigeti, who has been a CLA member since 2009 and once sat on its board of directors, couldn’t recall in her “history” of involvement with the association a time when financial donations were made to a bencher candidacy.

“That doesn’t mean it’s never happened before, but I certainly don’t have recollection of that, and I wasn’t aware that that was something that would be done. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I was very surprised to learn as a member of the association, from Twitter, that a donation had in fact been made by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association to the Good Governance Coalition,” she said, noting she’s unaware of how and when a donation was made.

Szigeti’s “concern is not about the quality of the candidates within the Good Governance Coalition,” but she wonders “since when does the Criminal Lawyers' Association, which has a particular mandate in terms of concerning itself with issues of importance to criminal lawyers’ education, advocacy, participate by means of making financial donations as opposed to issuing endorsements for a particular candidate in the election that we hold for our governing body?”

Szgeti also wondered what “kind of precedent does this set?”

She noted that while the GGC has four criminal defence lawyers in its group, the rest are not.

“We don’t know how [GGC] members will vote on issues of importance to the criminal defence bar other than we can certainly hope that the criminal defence lawyers within the coalition will be voting in ways that support the interests of criminal defence lawyers and our clients,” she added.

Szgeti also questioned whether the CLA had made “a similar donation or the same donation to support the bencher candidacy of other criminal defence lawyers, in particular, those running as independents?”

“I don’t know the answer to that, but I feel very strongly [that] there are concerns arising, first of all, in funding with money bencher candidates, as opposed to just creating an endorsement encouraging people to vote for the candidate. But secondly, if we’re going to be doing that, supporting some of our members who are criminal defence lawyers in seeking election in something like this, then we should be providing the same kind of support to others who uphold our values,” she added.

Szgeti believes candidates should disclose who their donors are and that there should be a limit on spending.  

“I think in order to inform ourselves with respect to campaign reform and election reform going forward, it would be helpful to know what kind of money was received and spent on these campaigns by everyone. One of the concerns, of course, is that there is no limit on campaign spending for these bencher elections and there absolutely, 100 per cent, must be a limit on campaign spending,” she stressed.

Szgeti ran as a bencher in 2011. She was a sole practitioner, working mostly on Legal Aid.

“I had scraped together a budget of a grand total of $1,000 for my campaign at the time, most of which went to sending a single email through the proper channels to the profession with my campaign platform. And then I hand-printed some buttons with my face and ‘fighting for legal aid,’ my slogan on it,” she said, noting that what little money she had left over went to cover a trip to Ottawa to speak with defence lawyers there.

“But that was all I had, and I was up against candidates from Bay Street, and these big firms with thousands of lawyers,” she added, recalling learning at the time that “some of those firms had a $50,000 budget or more for campaign spending for the candidate that their law firm was promoting and endorsing.”

“You can’t compete with a $50,000 budget when you have $1,000 to spend,” she stressed, noting that even back in 2011, she was pushing for campaign spending limits.

“I was shocked to learn that in 2023, we still don’t have limits on campaign spending for these elections. I think the inequity and the unfairness is glaring. And what you’re seeing in this election now are slates and coalitions versus the independents in terms of resources,” she said, noting that the problematic nature of the CLA donating to the GGC, which “by virtue of its size and the number of people running together,” she suspects is “richly resourced compared to the independents.”

Szgeti noted that bencher elections in Ontario, especially in regard to fundraising, are “not a level playing field.”

“These are very different worlds that people come from, and it’s very important that there be representation at Convocation by solo practitioners, practitioners with primarily Legal Aid practices who have social justice practices and represent vulnerable individuals,” she explained, noting that those candidates “don’t have any money” and “can't be up against $50,000 per candidate, and or whatever amount of money was donated to either group in this election.”

She also strongly believes in election reform, noting that the “number one thing” the LSO should address is campaign financing and a cap on campaign spending.

“There should be one limit across for every individual. And if you’re going to have a coalition of 40 people, it should not be more than 40 times the individual,” she added, noting a “real disparity” can be seen in this election.

“The independents really didn’t have a chance, given the current environment in this election, which has been difficult and polarized,” she said.

Daniel Brown, Criminal Lawyers’ Association president

Daniel Brown, Criminal Lawyers’ Association president

CLA president, Daniel Brown, addressed the donation, telling Law360 Canada that “between the time that nominations for bencher candidates were announced and the commencement of bencher voting,” the organization “only received one request for either an endorsement or financial support” and “that request came from the Bencher Good Governance Coalition.”

“Our board carefully considered that request and voted in favour of supporting the BGG coalition as well as providing financial support to ensure their campaign message in support of diversity, inclusion and access to justice was heard. Following our decision, the CLA released a public statement on Twitter, our website and in an email communique to our members advising them of our decision and explaining the reasons we supported the request,” he added.

“We did not endorse or financially support individual candidates nor were we asked to consider support for any specific candidate before bencher voting commenced,” Brown explained, noting that “notwithstanding, our public support and endorsement of the BGG coalition, CLA members remain free to vote for any benchers they choose.”

Voting for bencher candidates started on April 19 and will conclude on April 28. According to the LSO, the “names of the 40 lawyers and five paralegals elected as benchers will be announced on May 1, 2023.”

Currently, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada does not monitor the rules for bencher elections as it is not involved in the internal functions of the regulators.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for Law360 Canada, please contact Amanda Jerome at or 416-524-2152.