The province must do more to protect the public from lawyers who steal from their clients, says Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“Other jurisdictions have figured out how to protect the public, so we can do it here,” Horwath said Thursday.
A Toronto Star investigation revealed this week that fewer than one in five lawyers sanctioned by the Law Society of Upper Canada for criminal-like acts in the past decade have faced criminal charges.
The Star found that more than 230 lawyers disciplined for criminal-like offences by the law society during this time period stole, defrauded or diverted some $61 million held in trust funds for clients. While most of these lawyers were reprimanded, suspended or disbarred by the profession’s regulator, only 41 faced criminal charges. Only 12 went to jail.
The law society does not, as a rule, report lawyers suspected of committing criminal acts to police.
Law societies in most other provinces have policies to report lawyers suspected of criminal offences to police or the province’s minister of justice or attorney general, the Star found.
“These revelations undermine public confidence in the system of self-regulation and raise serious questions about the need to protect the public interest,” Horwath wrote in an email from the campaign trail.
Conservative MPP Steve Clark, a community safety critic running for re-election, said the government should step in to force the law society, which gained regulatory authority through provincial legislation, to report lawyers under such suspicion to police.
“We need to stand up as legislators and protect those people who have had a crime committed against them,” Clark said.
Both the law society and the Liberal campaign held firm to the view that the lawyer discipline process is open to the public.
In a statement on its website, the law society called the Star’s report “unbalanced and misleading,” and reiterated that it has a “proactive relationship” with police.
After the Star approached candidates running for treasurer in the law society’s upcoming election for comment, the current treasurer responded on their behalf, because, he said, “all candidates and I share the same view.”
“We have full confidence in the Law Society’s current investigation and discipline processes,” Thomas Conway said in an email Thursday. “These processes continue to be regularly reviewed to ensure that our … legislated mandate to regulate in the public interest is met in a fair, timely, and open manner.”
Conway said solicitor-client privilege “is not an ‘excuse,’ as you choose to characterize it,” but “is a fundamental principle of law” that protects confidential information.
He previously told the Star that solicitor-client privilege prevents the regulator from reporting lawyers to police, but that law society officials “can and do” disclose information in “limited circumstances.”
Despite repeated requests, the law society did not provide a single example of a case in which it has reported a lawyer to police.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne declined several requests over several days for an interview. Ontario Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur and Conservative Leader Tim Hudak also declined to comment.
In an email Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Liberal campaign said: “(All) discipline hearings are open to the public and information about every lawyer … facing a disciplinary hearing is publicly available.”
Rachel Mendleson can be reached at 416-869-4059, Kenyon Wallace at 416-869-4734, Dale Brazao at 416-869-4433.