It’s bad enough that more than 230 Ontario lawyers have been found to have stolen from their clients over the past decade, as Toronto Star reporters Kenyon Wallace, Rachel Mendleson and Dale Brazao reported this week.
It’s even worse that all but 41 of them ended up dodging criminal penalties, instead receiving softer sanctions from their professional governing body, the Law Society of Upper Canada.
But what makes it truly appalling is that nothing has been done to address the problem since the Star first blew the whistle on this situation almost nine years ago. Crooked lawyers keep scamming their clients and the Law Society keeps finding reasons not to alert the police. Only the names have changed.
It was back in November, 2005, that the Star for the first time laid out the details of how lawyers who steal thousands – in some cases millions – of dollars from clients rarely go to jail.
The paper looked at 105 cases over five years where the Law Society found lawyers guilty of acts that in a criminal court would amount to theft, fraud, forgery or breach of trust. Only 15 faced criminal sanctions.
In one particularly egregious case, Oakville lawyer William Sinclair pilfered more than $3 million from widows, charities and the estates of the dead. He was disbarred but never faced charges.
At the time, the Law Society, the lawyers’ professional association, insisted its hands were tied. While it investigated complaints about lawyers’ wrong-doing, Section 49.12 of the Law Society Act barred it from sharing information with police. The reason: lawyer-client confidentiality prevented it from passing anything it learned to a third party.
The result was that the vast majority of lawyers found to have “misappropriated” or “misapplied” clients’ money ended up being reprimanded, suspended or barred entirely from the practice of law. But only a handful faced the kind of criminal charges that would apply to anyone else who stole tens of thousands of dollars.
After the Star reported all that, the Ontario government made a small change in the law. It added an exception that would allow the Law Society to report suspected criminal activity to police if there is a “significant risk of harm” to the lawyer involved or to another person.
Fast forward to this week, and it looks like virtually nothing has changed. The Star team found that 236 Ontario lawyers over the past decade (out of some 46,000 in the province) have been found to have stolen, defrauded or diverted some $61 million from clients’ accounts.
Fewer than one in five faced criminal charges, and most avoided jail. One of them, Lawrence Burns of North Toronto, was disbarred in 2011 for “misappropriating” almost half a million dollars from clients, but never faced charges.
Once again, the Law Society insists that Section 49.12 of the act that governs it prevents it from sharing information with police. And the exception that was added to the law in 2005 appears to have had very little effect.
Somehow, law societies in most other provinces have found a way to report suspected criminal activity involving their members to police. The legal governing bodies in seven provinces report lawyers disciplined for suspected criminal acts to police or to their province’s attorney-general or justice minister. In addition, Quebec is reviewing its rules to allow it to report lawyers suspected of criminal behaviour.
Back in 2005, the Star called on the Law Society of Upper Canada to beef up its investigations team. And it urged the Ontario government to “repeal or substantially revise” the contentious Section 49.12 to lift the veil of secrecy over investigations into suspected criminal acts by lawyers.
That was good advice then, and it’s even more urgent now. Whichever party wins the June 12 election, the government should end this special treatment for bad lawyers – once and for all.