OBA award winners promote access to justice, call to action for civility

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (June 1, 2023, 3:12 PM EDT) -- Winners of the Ontario Bar Association’s (OBA) Awards Gala, held May 31 in Toronto, highlighted the importance of community and issued calls to action for improved access to justice and civility in the profession.

Sarah Armstrong, the chair of Fasken’s Ontario litigation and dispute resolution practice group, received the David Scott Award for Pro Bono.

Upon receiving the award, Armstrong said she was “honoured to receive an award named after David Scott, someone who played a pivotal role in the growth of Pro Bono Ontario and the development of a pro bono culture among the civil bar in this province.”

Sarah Armstrong, Fasken

Sarah Armstrong, Fasken

Armstrong’s “dedication to pro bono work is well known, as evidenced by her involvement as co-chair of Fasken’s Ontario Pro Bono Committee and chair of the board of directors of Pro Bono Ontario,” the OBA noted, emphasizing that her advocacy “on behalf of children with disabilities” has led to “significant improvements in their access to education and appropriate support services.”

In her remarks, Armstrong recognized the “entire staff of Pro Bono Ontario” for their work. The staff have “dedicated their careers to the cause of access to justice.”

“They make a meaningful difference on a daily basis for Ontarians who need civil legal services by connecting them with lawyers like me who want to do pro bono work. In fact, they made more than 34,000 of those connections last year,” she explained, also thanking the “pro bono champions” at Fasken who “developed and entrenched a pro bono culture at our firm.”

“This includes our former partner and my good friend, Jeff Leon, and my current partner, Laura Cooper. Thanks to their efforts, the associates at our firm find out about opportunities to do pro bono work and the support the firm provides for that work on day one of orientation,” she said, noting that the firm’s leaders say “ ‘yes,’ without hesitation, when I asked for support for Pro Bono Ontario, both in terms of dollars and volunteer time because doing this kind of work is built into our values and, in fact, our vision for the future of the firm.”

Armstrong said she was “committed and inspired to continue doing this work, both my own pro bono work, but also increasing the engagement of our civil bar here in Ontario in general in this work because the need is overwhelming.”

“On the education side, where I spend a lot of my time, there are countless families whose kids are struggling and who need an advocate to listen to them, to tell them what their rights are, and to help them ensure that their child is accessing their right to education,” she explained, stressing that there are thousands of Ontarians with “other unmet civil legal needs.”

“As members of the civil bar, it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to be part of the solution,” she added, noting that the reasons she’s done pro bono work are “also selfish.”

“The pro bono work I’ve been fortunate enough to do and the amazing families that I’ve worked with have played a fundamental role in my development as a lawyer and an advocate. I started volunteering with Pro Bono Ontario’s Education Law Project 20 years ago as a first-year associate at Fasken, and I’ve been doing it ever since. This work has made me a better advocate by challenging me to be creative, empathetic, practical and strategic,” she said, noting the clients and the families she’s had “the privilege of representing” have taught her the “importance of resilience, persistence, and above all, gratitude.”

“They’ve contributed to my well-being as an advocate and a person. So, for any members of the audience who are members of the civil bar, and you aren’t currently doing pro bono work, and you have the capacity to do so, please give it a try. It’s as simple as visiting Pro Bono Ontario’s website and signing up for one shift on our free legal advice hotline. I promise it will be time well spent for you and for the clients that you serve,” she concluded.

Frances Wood, Wood Gold LLP

Frances Wood, Wood Gold LLP

Frances Wood, a partner at Wood Gold LLP, also had a call to action upon receiving the Joel Kuchar Award for Professionalism and Civility.

She addressed the “crucial importance of improving civility, not only for the well-being of lawyers, but also for access to justice …”

“In a 2022 report,” she noted, the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada determined that more than half of the respondents reported feeling psychological distress and burnout.”

“Other studies have reported that rates of mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, are up to twice the level amongst lawyers as they are in the rest of the population. In several recent addresses, former Chief Justice Strathy has emphasized his own concern for lawyer well-being,” she added, noting that at the recent Family Law Summit, Strathy “commented that, as a profession, we have lost our way.”

“Do I believe that being nice to one another is going to solve all of that overnight? No, of course not. But I do believe that professionalism and civility have a really important role to play,” Wood stressed, noting that the “demanding nature of our work already places us under significant stress and pressure.”

“Add to that toxic interactions, the constant conflict, and the lack of civility, and we have the recipe for burnout, stress and other mental health challenges. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to create an environment that fosters collegiality, well-being, and collaboration,” she emphasized, noting that “incivility also directly affects access to justice.”

“When we engage in uncivil behaviour, we erode the public’s trust in our profession and in the legal system as a whole. By prioritizing civility, we enhance our credibility and strengthen the public’s confidence in the justice system,” she explained.  

Wood noted that “clients rely on us to navigate the complex legal system on their behalf. They look to us for guidance, empathy and understanding in often most difficult times in their lives. We cannot properly serve our clients in an environment overshadowed with animosity and discord.”

“Professionalism and civility are not signs of weakness, but rather signs of strength, wisdom and empathy. Each of us can work to improve civility, we can each commit to engaging in respectful dialogue, listening attentively and treating one another with kindness. We can advocate for reforms that prioritize civility in our ongoing education [and] continuing professional development. We can encourage mentorship programs that instil a sense of professionalism and ethics in our newer lawyers,” she added, stressing that “each of these is a key towards restoring the dignity and honour of our noble profession.”

The Linda Adlam Manning Award for Volunteerism was awarded to both Kathryn Hendrikx, of Hendrikx Family Law, and Richa Sandill, of the Don Valley Community Legal Services.

Sandhill told attendees that 10 years ago, when she “came back from England as a very, very young licensing candidate,” she had no idea if she was going to “even become a lawyer, let alone a human rights and social justice lawyer.”

She explained that it was the OBA, and, in particular, the Women Lawyers Forum that gave her that “first sense of community.”

“I walked into an event, not knowing anybody, and they welcomed me, they inspired me to do work on equality, on diversity, on inclusion, on advancing women,” she said.

“That is so part of who I am as a lawyer, who I am as a person. It’s work that has continued in my practice as a lawyer … and it’s work that I will never stop doing until we have an equitable profession and an equitable society,” she added.

The Award for Distinguished Service went to Justice Fred Myers, of the Superior Court of Justice.

“With a career spanning five decades, Justice Myers has made significant contributions to the legal field,” the OBA noted.

“I’ve now spent, believe it or not, the better part of 10 years as a judge. Basically, I write judgments,” Justice Myers said, emphasizing the support he’s received from “counsel and colleagues.”

“The depth of knowledge and experience on our bench is tremendous. I’m constantly learning about the law, and its reach in society from the wonderfully giving and talented colleagues throughout the province,” he added.

“As I become a bit older and things become a bit tougher, and maybe my zeal could start to wane, the idea that such an important and substantial group of lawyers as the OBA appreciates the effort really provides me with incentive to keep fighting the good fight for the development of the common law toward a culture shift in better access to civil justice,” he concluded, offering congratulations to the “truly impressive and deserving award winners” at the gala.

The Mundell Medal for Legal Writing was awarded to professor Carissima Mathen of the University of Ottawa.

Mathen was acknowledged as “one of Canada’s leading experts in constitutional law” as her “written work demonstrates a commitment to making complex legal issues understandable for broader audiences in interesting and insightful ways.”

Event photos provided by the Ontario Bar Association. 

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