Bar members refuse to debate gender declaration rule in courtroom

As of December, all courts in British Columbia have required lawyers to also declare their names, titles and gender pronouns.

The Law Society has rejected an attempt by a Victoria lawyer to open debate on a new requirement for lawyers to declare their gender pronouns at the start of court proceedings in British Columbia.

Lawyers typically showed up and then spelled out their last name for the court record, but since December all courts in British Columbia have asked lawyers to include their names, titles and gender pronouns as well.

In its opinion to the profession, the provincial court gave an example of what was expected:

“My name is Mrs. Jane Lee, spelled LEE. My pronouns are she / she. I’m Mx’s lawyer. Joe Carter, who uses the them / them pronouns. Mx. is pronounced “mix” and is a neutral headline / greeting, the court explained.

Since the guidelines were issued, “strong opinions have been expressed by lawyers on both sides of the issue,” an Oct. 7 article said in Canadian lawyer magazine. Supporters call the criticism of the guidelines “akin to hate speech,” he said, while those who want more debate say the other side is trying to censor their views.

Victoria lawyer Jim Heller, one of the lawyers pushing for more debate, describes the new guidelines as “forced speech”.

“It’s an affront to my self-esteem. It makes me lie. For me, telling someone “These are my pronouns” is based on the assumption that they don’t know it. Everyone who looks at me knows I’m a guy, plain and simple.

In February, Heller wrote to chief justices of provincial and supreme courts asking that the guidelines be repealed and that a more inclusive consultation process be organized. When that failed, he presented a resolution to the Law Society of BC proposing an open debate on the use of pronouns in court proceedings.

“This is simply to assert the underlying general principle that lawyers do not shut down debate on contentious issues,” Heller said.

At the company’s annual general meeting, held virtually on Oct. 5, attendees voted between 58 and 42 percent against Heller’s resolution to open a debate on the use of pronouns in court proceedings.

Heller, however, said he was not disappointed with the outcome. “It completely proves that there are a lot of lawyers who are not happy with the way this has turned out.”

In its opinion to the profession, the provincial court stated that the information is important to improve experiences within the legal system for parties and lawyers of various kinds. It also means that lawyers won’t have to raise the issue only after using incorrect titles or pronouns.

“The Court hopes that its new opinion will contribute to a culture that is inclusive and respectful of all. “

Clare Jennings, president of the Canadian Bar Association of British Columbia, spoke out against Heller’s resolution, calling it “an attack on the equality of transgender people.”

Transgender people have a higher rate of legal issues that require court resolution, but they have less confidence in the legal system and have less access to it, Jennings said.

“The major contributing factors to this are ongoing transphobia, gender abuse and the harms associated with it. Being able to work with a transgender lawyer and feeling safe in a courtroom are two steps that can help these clients, ”she said.

Courts try to create a more inclusive space where all participants in the justice system feel safe and can focus on issues, Jennings said.

“It is an important element of access to justice. Debating whether courts should be safe spaces for transgender people creates a barrier to justice, ”she said.

Victoria’s attorney, Michael Mulligan, noted that while the resolution was not passed, the vote was close.

“And there has been a debate about it in terms of a debate whether there should be a debate. All kinds of people weighed in and discussed it online, ”Mulligan said, noting that Supreme Court justices are still referred to as My Lady and My Lord.

He thinks the new guidelines are helpful in being respectful and addressing people however they want. But he suggested the court could adopt a more neutral way of addressing people than the gender statement.

One way to deal with the reluctance against using pronouns and gender declaration is to use something neutral like the term lawyer, Mulligan said.

“Or you could openly say, ‘Please present yourself the way you want to be approached. If I want to be Master Mulligan, fine. I’m sure from a legal point of view it helps for people to point out what they prefer, otherwise you’re left with the guesswork.

Mulligan noted that another less controversial resolution that was passed orders the Law Society to allow lawyers to list their pronouns and address forms on the lawyer directory on the company’s website.

The resolution also called for technical support to enable members of various communities to enumerate their traditional names using characters and to support audio pronunciation guides for non-English names.

“I think it’s going to be very useful. If you don’t know the person, you’re not going to mistakenly identify them, ”Mulligan said.

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