Outgoing Treasurer advanced equality and access

Posted: 07/26/2012

Laurie H. Pawlitza, Law Society Treasurer 2010-2012

In the rural Saskatchewan town where Laurie Pawlitza grew up, it was common for sons to inherit the farm and for daughters to be given an education and a suitcase.

“My parents wanted us to know that we were bigger than the farm,” she said in a recent interview.

“They thought it was the most important thing to be engaged and to contribute, to carry your weight in society.”

With a strong work ethic, ambition and her appetite for a leadership role whetted by success at public speaking competitions beginning in Grade 1, Pawlitza completed two degrees and travelled abroad before beginning to practise law.

Still, the daughter of a wheat farmer and a volunteer lobbyist for provincial health care reform, Pawlitza admits it took her some time to appreciate the value of having a background different from many of the law associates she met when she began working on Bay Street.

A lingering sense of being an outsider dogged Pawlitza until it became a transformative force, inspiring her to support the voices of those who had not always been heard.

As a family lawyer, Pawlitza would go on to play a pivotal role in the Ontario Courts’ acknowledgement of the right of same-sex couples to adopt their partners’ children.

In 1994, after then–Attorney General Marion Boyd’s attempt to extend same sex benefits was defeated in the Legislature, Pawlitza launched a court application on behalf of three lesbian couples challenging the constitutionality of the adoption legislation, which at that time, prevented same-sex couples from adopting their partners’ children.

Read more about the case here.

The constitutional challenge was successful, and in 1995, the lesbian mothers were granted adoption orders, which legally recognized them as co-parents.

Treasurer Laurie H. Pawlitza, Roberta Benson, Miriam Kaufman, Bencher Janet Minor, the Right Honourable Justice James Nevins, lawyer Jacob Kaufman and former attorney general and lay bencher Marion Boyd

Jacob Kaufman, one of the children who had been subject to the 1995 adoption order, was called to the Bar in 2011 by Pawlitza.

“The justice system made a real difference to that family—, so much so that Jacob decided to pursue law as a career.

“I only hope that Jacob and all of the other new Calls find a niche in the law that is as rewarding for them as family law was for me.

“At the end of the day, you have to be engaged by something. When you find it, you know it,” Pawlitza said. “Family law suited me.”

Pawlitza is proud that with the recent launch of the Your Law website, Ontarians seeking family law resources can now access them and gain insights about how to navigate the legal system.

“The Law Society has a legislated mandate to facilitate access to justice,” she said.

“This website will contribute to a better justice system by educating the public about the questions they should ask and the issues they should consider when they face a family law problem.”

Pawlitza’s successes in family law also informed some of the initiatives she brought forward as the 63rd Treasurer. She focused on broadening the Law Society’s image as the governing body of a profession that has made great strides to become inclusive of individuals across demographics: races, genders and sexual orientations.

“I said early on that I wanted to bring Osgoode Hall beyond the iron gates. So, that’s why I’ve done all the outreach I’ve done,” she said.

That outreach came as the profession was witnessing an upward trend in the number of visible minorities being called to Ontario’s Bar.

When Pawlitza began her role as Treasurer in 2010, the Law Society’s statistics were beginning to reflect what benchers attending annual Call ceremonies had been observing anecdotally: just as more and more women were crossing the stage each year, so too were more new calls who self-identified as being part of a racialized community.

In 2008, 12.8 per cent of the legal profession self-identified as being a member of a racialized community, compared to 19 per cent in 2010 and 24 per cent in 2012.

The third woman to lead the Law Society’s 50-person board of governors — the benchers — Pawlitza looks back with gratitude and with hope that she was able to help lawyers see the Law Society as more inclusive and as more than “just a place you pay your fees.”

“Here is this tremendous organization with this great tradition and history and I’ve had the opportunity to put a little bit of a different face on it.”

It was apt that the last two public events at which Pawlitza’s appeared as Treasurer celebrated Pride and the Unified Family Court.

Lawyer Douglas Elliott, LSM, and Treasurer Laurie H. Pawlitza

Lawyer Douglas Elliott, LSM, and Treasurer Laurie H. Pawlitza at Pride 2012 event.

At the Pride event Pawlitza welcomed the warm applause of about 150 attendees and reflected on the community’s evolution.

The statements earlier that evening of a gay panellist and judge who acknowledged what value he brings to the Bench by being open about who he is, echoed what she had touched on in considering her tenure as Treasurer.

“I’ve been able to be myself: very different from the others who have been in this role.

“Everybody brings something of themselves.

“It’s been an opportunity for me to bring as much of myself as I could — my passion for access to justice, experience as a family lawyer and commitment to empowering women.”