The Society created the Race Relations Committee in 1990 in response to the recommendations from the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr. Prosecution.
In presenting the newly formed committee to Council, its Chair, Jamie Saunders, expressed his view that the Society and its members must be responsive to the various racial, ethnic and historical backgrounds of the public, and be vigilant to react quickly to acts or omissions that threaten fundamental human rights and dignities. This perspective continues to resonate today through the Society’s commitments to cultural competence education and advocating for enhanced access to legal services and the justice system for equity-seeking and economically disadvantaged Nova Scotians.
In response to a request from the Race Relations Committee and in support of a number of findings from the Marshall Commission, the Society created its Equity Office in 1997. The equity program was determined necessary to support the public interest and to assist the legal profession in examining and overcoming some long-standing historic issues and challenges, particularly in relation to racial and gender equity within the profession. In fact, because of Nova Scotia’s unique history, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society was the first law society in Canada to develop a full-time, permanent Equity Officer position. Currently, law society equity programs exist in seven Canadian provinces.
Initially, the Equity Officer’s primary role was to build liaison programs with the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities, and to address the issue of retention of women in the legal profession. This work was undertaken with the support of the Race Relations Committee (now the Racial Equity Committee) and the Gender Equality Committee (now the Gender Equity Committee).
In 2004 when the Legal Profession Act came into force, s.4 (1) articulated the Society’s purpose: “to uphold and protect the public interest in the practice of law”. In 2010, this section was further amended to include:
4(2) (d) seek to improve the administration of justice in the Province by
(i) regularly consulting with organizations and communities in the Province having an interest in the Society’s purpose, including, but not limited to, organizations and communities reflecting the economic, ethnic, racial, sexual and linguistic diversity of the Province …
With this change, it became clear that protecting the public interest required the Society to consult regularly with equity-seeking communities that have been traditionally marginalized by the justice system. Since its inception, the Equity Office has played a crucial role in upholding the public interest in the practice of law. Included in this work are initiatives to ensure that both the law and the practice of law reflect Nova Scotia’s diverse population, including African Nova Scotian, Mi’kmaq and other equity-seeking communities.
The Marshall Commission was a defining moment for the justice system in Nova Scotia. Its findings and recommendations deeply impacted the province’s legal community and significant changes came about as a result. In particular, the Society clearly acknowledged the existence of discrimination in the legal profession and made concrete commitments to refuse to tolerate discrimination in the future.
F.B. Wickwire QC, in a 1991 Society report on the Marshall Commission, made the following statement: “Our commitment as the governing body of the legal profession in Nova Scotia is firm: to do all that we can to eliminate discrimination in the justice system.” This sentiment shaped the decision to support the Equity Committees, the Equity Office and future decisions relating to equality and discrimination.
In the years following the Marshall Commission, the Society’s commitment to addressing discrimination was far reaching and touched on every aspect of the legal system, from legal education to access to justice. In 2015, the Society changed the Office’s name to the Equity & Access Office to better reflect the range of activities it undertakes.
Through the Equity & Access Office and its Equity Committees, the Society continues to recognize, support and work towards achieving many of the Marshall Commission recommendations, including support of the Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq Initiative at the Schulich School of Law, advocating for a diverse judiciary, encouraging sensitivity and understanding for the concerns of equity-seeking law students and lawyers, increasing awareness of systemic discrimination among lawyers, and working closely with diverse communities on access to justice challenges and issues.
It is no coincidence that the Office’s development has progressed in line with the development and understanding of the Society’s public interest mandate and its work to enhance the administration of justice. The commitment to improve access to justice for equity-seeking groups, so central to the 2013-2016 Strategic Framework, evolved out of this history.
The Society is deeply committed to improving the administration of justice in advocating for enhanced access to the justice system for all Nova Scotians. History in this province has led to a profound understanding that in order to uphold the public interest in the practice of law, it is essential to work to improve the administration of justice for equity-seeking and economically disadvantaged communities.