Turmoil at the Nova Scotia Barristers Society, Take 32

The case of the “disappeared” governance review. And so it continues.

Notice concerning systemic discrimination
Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society notice. Still trying to move forward.

According to a new report on the inner workings of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, “some council members are so concerned with being heard that they cannot listen… New members often feel dismissed and disrespected… Some members are focused on who speaks rather than what they have to say. In a system and implementation that is broken, new input is greeted with either distrust or disdain.”

No, this is not that report by Douglas Ruck, the former provincial ombudsman and respected human rights lawyer whom the society appointed in April 2021 to produce “a comprehensive ​external, independent ​review of our regulatory policies and processes to identify and address any areas of systemic discrimination that exist within the ​society.”

That review, you may recall, was announced in the messy middle of what has become a roiling, rolling controversy over systemic discrimination inside the province’s all-powerful legal regulator.

Some background.

Man and woman on their way to court
Lyle Howe arrives at court with his partner Laura McCarthy.

In June 2020, the society piggybacked on worldwide revulsion at the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, issuing a statement trumpeting its own deep and longstanding commitment to tackling racism and offering its renewed promise to “lead Nova Scotia’s legal profession by example.”

Except, of course, that the society’s own hands hardly seemed clean. Lyle Howe, one of Nova Scotia’s few Black criminal defence lawyers, was still challenging the society over a 2017 decision by an all-white hearing panel to disbar him in a case he claimed was rife with racism.

Howe’s wife and former law partner, Laura McCarthy, had quickly called out the society’s hypocrisy in a blistering letter to its governing council, dismissing the anti-racism statement as “empty words” and declaring the NSBS “cannot move into a new chapter of trust and equality with their marginalized members and the public when there is so much discrimination dirt still under their rug.”

In the nearly two years since that dustup, you’d need a scorecard to keep track of the number of resignations, firings and unexplained disappearances among the NSBS governing council and senior staff. They include:

  • Jim Rossiter, the council’s president, who quit early in 2021, less than seven months into his one-year term, vaguely noting that the stress of the job had become more than he “could bear.”
  • Denise Mentis-Smith, the second vice-president, who quit early too, without publicly explaining why.
  • Josie McKinney — an Indigenous lawyer, Nova Scotia’s first fulltime human trafficking prosecutor and the co-chair of the society’s racial equity committee — who quit in November 2021 “as a result of the direct and systemic racism and discrimination that I have experienced during my time on council.”
  • That same day, Rod Wilson — a former president of the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons who was a volunteer public representative on the council — resigned too, describing his experience at the bar society as “one shit show after another for the last two years.” NSBS, he said, had been “by far the most dysfunctional organization and least rewarding” of the many boards he’d served on.
  • Tilly Pillay, whose appointment in 2019 as the first person of colour to serve as executive director of the society was widely trumpeted, departed the job with little fanfare last spring.
  • Bernadine MacAulay, the society’s first in-house general counsel who was hired in 2019 was “terminated on February 23, 2022… I was not provided a reason,” MacAulay said.
  • Between Pillay and MacAulay, the society’s director of professional responsibility, Andrew Taillon, also left after less than a year on the job. No explanation was provided for his departure either.

No wonder the bar society appointed Doug Ruck to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it. He has already conducted 175 interviews with more scheduled. This is the report we have been expecting. When he was appointed last April, we were told to expect his first report in eight to 10 months.

But his interim report is now not expected until June, a final report at the end of the summer.

So, what was that report I quoted from at the top of this column?

That report — a “governance engagement review of the society’s council” — was prepared by Paula Minnikin, who began work on her own review last summer.

Minnikin is a Halifax-based business management consultant who serves as a non-lawyer volunteer member of the society’s governance committee. She’s previously held leadership positions at Xwave, the former BellAliant company, and Jacques Whitford, the environmental science, engineering, and consulting firm.

Minnikin’s review apparently “underlines key disconnects” and identifies “questionable conduct and other strife” while describing a “cultural mismatch between public lawyers and private lawyers,” citing “a pervasive lack of trust” within the council.

She also took aim at what she called “equity for equity’s sake.”

Equity in service of a goal is better than efforts in service of equity for equity’s sake… It would be more productive to have a diverse committee working to improve access to legal services for the underserved public than to have so many committees focused internally on equity.

Minnikin’s review includes 30 recommendations.

I know that much because I read it on allnovascotia.com, which reported on the review in its April 5th edition. The business news website noted that Minnikin’s “executive summary [was] recently posted to the society’s website.”

But when I went looking for a copy on April 16, I discovered it’s no longer there — or at least not publicly available.

So much for transparency and accountability. (I have asked the barrister’s society for an explanation, and will add that to this column when I hear back from them.)

Still, it seems to be one more reason why the Nova Scotia government needs to reconsider whether lawyers should continue to have the privilege to regulate themselves.

Because… well, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job at it.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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