For the first time ever a Penticton lawyer is the president of the Canadian Bar Association B.C. Branch.
Born in Penticton and raised in Summerland, Michael Welsh previously held positions on the provincial council, as an officer on the executive committee and was elected as secretary treasurer of the B.C. branch, as well as holding the vice presidential role.
“It’s an honour obviously and something that I’m having to really make sure I plan properly for so I can provide the best possible service as president over the upcoming year,” Welsh said. “It provides a few more challenges when you’re somewhere like the Okanagan because much of what you have to do involves travel.”
His year is set to be a busy one, simultaneously acting as president, meeting with local bar associations and larger meetings in Victoria and Vancouver and running his practice in Penticton — Mott Welsh and Associates, which specializes in mediation and arbitration work.
“In a way it’s like holding two full-time jobs,” Welsh laughed.
He began his year-long term as president of the 6,700 members of the CBABC on Aug. 21.
Welsh is well aware of the recent issue of high-profile trials being moved out of the community due to security concerns of the aging Penticton courthouse. (Read more on this:Penticton siblings accused of murder have trial moved to Kelowna)
“It is a problem … periodically where there are security issues that arise, and the sheriffs here in Penticton do a good job of trying to deal with that,” Welsh said.
Longer trials put a strain on the rest of the day-to-day operations in the courthouse Welsh said, noting the large investment put into the renovations at the Kelowna Courthouse recently to help deal with delays.
“Obviously there’s a natural movement on the part of administration to take those cases and put them in those secure courtrooms that are already built. What that means is, yes, again you have people who aren’t able to have trials in their communities. They have to travel significant distances,” Welsh said.
That includes police officers travelling significant distances as well, adding to the policing budget, Welsh said, as well as civilian witnesses taking time away from their jobs.
“It makes the system a more inefficient system and the one thing we don’t want to see is the closure of more courthouses because things are getting moved to larger centres,” Welsh said. “It’s just as important as having lawyers in all communities that we have courts.”
One issue Welsh plans on tackling is the growing percentage of people in the justice system who are unrepresented, whether that is because they can’t afford a lawyer on a private retainer or are not covered by legal aid.
“If they’re not in those types of cases, they have to do it on their own. Which adds to the cost and time that the cases take in the court system and, of course, puts people in a very stressful situation without having the knowledge or skills to be able to get through it,” Welsh said.
All the issues relate to each other in the justice system holistically. Welsh said judges having to spend more time assisting those without representation delays cases and takes up court time, making it more expensive to the province.
Welsh plans to focus on bringing younger lawyers into smaller communities.
“In a number of communities the lawyers who are practising there are getting to the age where they are looking at retiring or closing their practices, but it has been difficult to attract younger lawyers into their communities,” Welsh said.
In communities like Princeton there is a demand because one of the two lawyers in town died this year and the other retired. Six figure student debt contributes to the issue.
“It’s difficult for them to be able to service that debt when they are practising in a small community and not making the amount of money they might make in a larger centre,” Welsh said.
Penticton has brought in a some young lawyers in the past few years.
“But it is a problem around the province, we have to find some way to address it. That’s something the B.C. branch is working on. We’ve submitted a proposal to government for a student loan forgiveness program similar to what is offered to doctors and health professionals,” Welsh said.
He hopes the initiative will entice young lawyers into communities that are high-need.
Background on Michael Welsh:
After graduating high school in Summerland, Welsh completed his undergraduate in philosophy at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., returning to Canada to work on the beginnings of what would become the legal aid system in B.C. in the mid-1970s.
Welsh attended UBC and attained his law degree, practicing in Vancouver and on the Sunshine Coast until he returned to the Okanagan, something he always intended to do. He purchased an orchard in Osoyoos and turned it into a commercial vineyard, which he operated for 10 years in addition to practising law, selling the vineyard around 2011 and moving with his wife back to Penticton where he has been practising law since 2002.
When he’s not working one of his two full-time jobs, Welsh enjoys taking the stage. Taking part in multiple theatre groups in Penticton, theatre and music have always played a part in his life.
“I really enjoy it. I think most lawyers are just frustrated actors when you get down to it. It continues to be something I enjoy doing, unfortunately I think this year I’m going to have to take a break. But I’m hoping when my presidential year is done to get back into doing more musical theatre and regular theatre as well.”