New president of Manitoba legal regulator eyes access to justice, technology, diversity

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (September 22, 2023, 1:00 PM EDT) -- Keeping lawyers up to speed on using technology and continuing to improve access to justice in remote communities are high priorities for the Law Society of Manitoba’s new president.

Winnipeg-based civil litigator Wayne Onchulenko, the regulator’s 103rd president, took the reins from Aboriginal and administrative practitioner Sacha Paul. Like his predecessor, Onchulenko will serve the standard one-year term.

Onchulenko, who grew up in the town of Russell, around 350 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, recently spoke with Law360 Canada about the road ahead.  

Wayne Onchulenko, Law Society of Manitoba

Wayne Onchulenko, Law Society of Manitoba

Having taken office during what many consider the post-pandemic era, Onchulenko wants to make sure LSM members are able to properly use technologies that courts and others in the legal sector continue to employ since first adopting them during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“You need to be able to interact with the court system, or with the administrative law systems, in terms of filing documents and communicating and a whole variety of things,” said Onchulenko. “What the law society does as things change — and during the pandemic, many things changed, and changed quickly — it provides resources, both digital and in-person lectures, keeping people up to date on different topics as things come out.”

As is the case with other law societies, the LSM code of conduct calls for lawyers to “develop an understanding of, and ability to use, technology relevant to the nature and area of the lawyer’s practice and responsibilities” and “understand the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

Onchulenko said regulators “have the duty to make sure that their members have the capacity to serve the public in a competent way,” and that includes the ability to interact with courts electronically.

“In some of the areas in court, you are filing documents in hard copy, in other areas from time to time you can file them digitally, and you need to be able to understand how that process works and understand the timing of that process.”

Case in point: a prominent Saskatchewan-based law firm handling a matter in Alberta was recently taken to task by Alberta’s Appeal Court for jeopardizing a case after lawyers failed to read digital communications from the court and for not taking the time to figure out how its digital filing system works.

Onchulenko also spoke of the continued need to improve access to justice in out-of-the-way parts of the province. Increasing the number of lawyers working in these underserved areas would help, he said.

“We have lots of access to lawyers in the city of Winnipeg, and near the city of Winnipeg, and in Brandon and in Steinbach and in Selkirk. But as we move farther away from those centres, there are fewer lawyers per person, so there are people, particularly in northern Manitoba, that have more difficulty being able to get easy contact with a lawyer. … So, that’s an area where we think we can help some more — with partners, because obviously there are lots of other important stakeholders that have to be a part of that.”

This, he said, is a prime item when the LSM discusses its current strategic plan.

Onchulenko was asked about further incentivizing young lawyers to practise in out-of-the-way areas. Having been raised in a small town, Onchulenko knows the benefits of being in a rural environment.

“It’s a solution that has been talked about for a while. … The law society has taken steps, historically, like providing forgivable loans if people go and article and practise for a period of time in northern Manitoba. And although we’ve tried some things, we’re looking at other things because more needs to be done. It’s one thing try things, it’s another thing to have some kind of measurable success in those things. So, what we’re looking for is ways to maybe even educate young people on some very good quality of life decisions that can be made in rural Manitoba.”

And lawyers who choose to work in these areas may have an easier time of it in the future.

Onchulenko’s predecessor, Paul, was the first ever Indigenous person to be LSM president. Considering this, Onchulenko was asked what the regulator is doing to improve access to justice for the province’s large Indigenous population.

(Manitoba still has the largest Indigenous population of all the provinces — not including the territories — with Indigenous residents making up 18 per cent of the total population.)

Onchulenko spoke of the need for a greater number of Indigenous lawyers in the province, and about further promoting law as a possible career option.  

“We at the law society have talked about how we need to try to approach First Nations communities about becoming involved in all areas of the law, not just becoming lawyers,” he said. “Typically, what happens is people first get interested in the legal system, and then after they’ve been in the system for while, they start to think about, well, maybe I can be a lawyer as well. So, how do we … increase the number of First Nations people that are practising law?”

He noted that a similar push should be made to include Manitoba’s large Southeast Asian population.

“Why are they not reflected in the lawyers that are practising in Manitoba? Why are there not more people from the Philippines practising law, given the decades that we’ve had a large population here in Manitoba? So, we’re looking for ways to try to create diversity among lawyers in Manitoba. You do it one step at a time. … Because if you have more lawyers that come from different communities, people will likely feel more comfortable coming to a lawyer and hopefully then getting better advice.”

Onchulenko, who is of Ukrainian descent, graduated from the University of Manitoba’s law school and was called to the bar in 1985.

He has been an LSM bencher since 2016 but was involved with the regulator in various ways previous to that. He is a partner and managing director at Levene Tadman Golub Law Corporation, where he has been practising since 1985.

Onchulenko has been a lecturer at the University of Manitoba Law School and taught civil litigation for the LSM’s bar admission course.

He is married to Australian-Canadian artist Amanda Onchulenko, an artist in residence at Winnipeg’s Fairmont Hotel. The couple have two young-adult children — the older recently graduated from law school and is articling in family law, while the younger is studying architecture.

During his daughters’ younger days, Onchulenko served as coach on their ringette, soccer and volleyball teams. A lover of golf, he worked at a golf course during his teens and continues to play the game today.
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