Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Justin Khorana-Medeiros (2L)

Let me start by saying that I realize not everyone is as riveted by committee work as I am. Most people would not voluntarily spend two hours observing the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform while visiting Ottawa. Most people also wouldn’t consider a clause-by-clause in the Standing Committee on Government Agencies at Queen’s Park a labour of love. Nevertheless, allow me to propose a daring idea: in any governing institution, committees should be transparent and accountable as a matter of principle.

I would never have considered such a proposition “daring” prior to coming to U of T Law. Committee work at all three levels of government in Canada satisfies these two conditions uncontroversially and by rote. Yet at our law school, committee meetings are held in camera (in private) by default, unless opened up at the discretion of the chair. Scheduled meeting times and agendas are not publicly posted in advance, nor are any minutes posted afterwards. This is true of both Faculty Council committees and Dean’s Advisory committees.

The administration and most committee chairs offer the following justifications for current practices:

  • Doing otherwise would inhibit frank and open conversation, as members would not be able to freely and candidly exchange ideas if their every word was monitored.
  • StAG representatives are a sufficient conduit between the students and governing bodies at the law school.
  • It is Faculty Council that ultimately approves policy, and those meetings are open, and committee reports are openly discussed there.

With respect to the first point, one wonders what is unique about law school committees as compared to their counterparts at City Hall, Queen’s Park, and Parliament. What makes our committees so much more susceptible to this chilling effect?

Perhaps this could be called an unfair comparison, pitting the resources and important work of our provincial and federal governments next to our little law school. Well, let’s pick a comparator closer to home then. The University’s Governing Council Committees at Simcoe Hall are, with a few well-justified exceptions, open to the public. They also post schedules and agendas in advance of the meetings, and detailed reports and minutes are posted online shortly thereafter (not simply delivered orally and briefly discussed at the next Governing Council meeting, as at our Faculty Council meetings). The same goes for governance at the Faculty of Engineering and, of course, for our very own Students’ Law Society committees.

To the second point, it is true that students could theoretically get in touch with their StAG representative before and after every committee meeting, but this is hardly practicable. Representatives are extremely busy between their academics, admirable service, and other extracurriculars. It is a safe bet that City Councilors, MPPs, and MPs are happy to have offloaded these duties to websites and reporters. If it is more convenient for everyone, why persist with the current impracticality?

As to the final point, there isn’t really much to say. Is there a committee in Canada that has the power to approve policy? Of course not. Yet it is a rare governance structure where the discussions taking place in committees aren’t extremely important in shaping the policy that ultimately does get approved.

As tuition-paying students spending at least three years of our lives here, we are undeniably  stakeholders at the law school. As such, we deserve to be incorporated into decision-making processes as much as is feasible. While I agree that some committees must be in camera (the Appeals Committee and Financial Aid Committee being two obvious examples), a blanket rule is  hard to justify. Rather, there should be a rebuttable presumption in favour of openness and accountability.

It is worth pointing out that it is to the administration’s benefit to make this change. Consider the recent backlash over the unilateral decision to split Convocation into two ceremonies: the anger and disappointment engendered by that decision-making process could have been avoided through greater transparency and prior consultation.

Just as Parliamentary information belongs to the public, information about law school governance belongs to law students. Committees should either be open to reporters and students, or detailed minutes (ideally transcripts or recordings) should be provided.
Best practice, as demonstrated by other governing bodies, is to have both. Having neither is undemocratic and unacceptable.