CSU Legal Fees Skyrocket
Executive hires lawyer at cost of $2000/year
// Evelyn Cranston

The Capilano Students Union (CSU) has, as of Sept. 19, a lawyer held on retainer to assist the union in legal matters. Previously, the CSU had retained legal counsel only as needed, at the rate of $350 per hour. Now, the CSU and Heenan Blaikie LLP have a retainer agreement, which states that lawyer David Borins is available for general counsel to the CSU at a flat rate of $2000 per month.

In the retainer agreement, it states that Borins will be available to answer general legal questions and give advice concerning employment, labour, governance, and operational matters. Kelsey Didlick, Staff Relations Officer of the CSU explains this change to the legal service: “In this retainer, it covers that we meet with him once a week and have unlimited phone calls and emails. As directors, we try our best to do our job effectively, but we’re not professionals so he’s a great resource for us.”

The CSU board will be in need of help, as the collective agreement is due to expire in June of 2012. One important note is that Borins will be available to legal counsel up until the point when collective bargaining begins, but after that he will be paid on a hourly rate or the agreement will change. Didlick states that he will be available for help with labour management or bylaw interpretation, but the major focus will be help with reviewing the collective agreement before bargaining.

As for the cost, the CSU had previously only been paying $350 of students money per hour, and the retainer changes these costs to $2,000 per month flat, which seems like a steep raise at first glance. However, during this past summer, $5,000 were budgeted for legal counsel operating on a hourly rate and it was entirely used up in a matter of weeks. Didlick states, “As far as I know, we’ve never had a lawyer on retainer. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t using legal counsel. We’ve always needed counsel. We’re meeting with him once a week now, and I think we’ll definitely get our value, especially as we go look at getting closer to collective bargaining.”

The logic is that $350 per hour turned out to be costing students more due to the amount of hours required, and the $2,000 a month will end up to be more cost effective. Didlick states, “I think it was really poor judgement that we didn’t have a retainer. I think we’re being more responsible employers and executives of the CSU now. It’s also more cost effective.”

One difficulty the CSU faced with using a lawyer on a piecemeal basis was that, according to Didlick, “getting every cost approved can be an impediment to getting things done.” She noted that the unlimited contact with Borins will help the CSU operate in a more efficient, streamlined manner, and ensure that they’re not making mistakes along the way. She continues, “I think [having the lawyer] is going to mean that we’re more prepared and more educated on what our rights as management are. It’s going to be really valuable.”
If the CSU isn’t using enough hours to be getting value out of the retainer, it can be terminated by either party at any time, thus ensuring there is not an immediate risk of exceeding the budget. Didlick notes that “it’s really, really flexible at this time.”
It’s important to note that in the CSU bylaws, it states under Capital Expenditures that “all contracts and agreements entered into by the Union exceeding $1,000 shall be approved by the special resolution at a general meeting.” The motion passed by the board appears to violate this bylaw.

The board justifies this decision by saying that for September, because the contract began mid-month, it will be pro-rated and total less than $1,000. After September, however, the costs for the following months will exceed $1,000. Trevor Page, former CSU board member states, “Regardless of cost per month, full contract price ... is over $1,000 as the contract continues over an indefinite period of time.” Page goes on to state he would caution against it.

The sudden increase in the cost of legal counsel is notable considering the already high price tag of personnel costs. About 62 per cent of the CSU’s operating budget goes into paying the staff, earning them about $60,000 dollars year, and this retainer adds an additional $24,000 in lawyer fees, with much of the justification being high personel costs. According to CSU financial documents, in the previous three fiscal years, the CSU's legal fees have been $180, $296, and $870 respectively (with the last collective bargaining round being in 2008).

According to Page, “[The CSU] should not require an ongoing retainer, as such a contract should only last until the [collective bargaining] negotiations are completed. During my time on the CSU Board, there were only a few instances that legal counsel was required or beneficial.”

Page is hesitant to be enthusiastic. “To justify the payment of a retainer, the CSU Board should present a report detailing the use of legal counsel in the past that explains the benefit of retaining such counsel. If there was no need for services in the past, it may be a waste of students' money to be spending much more.” He adds that when he was involved in the CSU, no legal issues arose which mandated a lawyer on retainer, though without knowledge of legal issues facing the board at this time, he cannot provide fair comment.

// Evelyn Cranston
Staff Writer

// Artwork by Katie So

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com