Zealous Advocacy or Abuse of Process?

GEO CASUALThis week two Vancouver lawyers were excoriated by a Supreme Court Justice because of the tactics they employed in a case involving the proposed adoption of a young Metis child, referred to as SS. (A.S. v. British Columbia (Director Of Child, Family and Community Services),2017 BCSC 1175)

Lawyer JH represented foster parents who were desperate to retain custody and adopt the young child, while lawyer NG represented the biological parents, who supported the claims of the Metis foster parents. Their mutual nemesis was the Director of the Ministry of Child, Family and Community Services who determined the child, born in 2013, should be placed for adoption with a non-Metis Ontario family who had already adopted the child’s two siblings.

The court battle was hard fought involving multiple and duplicate actions and subsequent appeals, however, the lynchpin of Madam Justice Fisher’s damning findings against lawyer JH centered on a settlement letter JH sent to the Ministry, threatening to disclose a recording of an interview between Ministry social workers and the child which he said would show that the social workers had perjured themselves in their evidence in court. HH wrote:

“This is critical information which should be made available to Madam Justice Dickson, the panel hearing the appeal, and every subsequent Justice hearing any further matter in these and all related proceedings. Should the contested litigation continue, appropriate sanctions may be appropriate against the 3 social workers and the Director.

I have instructions from my clients, counsel for the birth parents, and the President of the BC Metis Federation, that if the Director is prepared to consent to my clients adopting S.S. by 10:00 a.m. this Wednesday, September 7, 2016, my clients, the birth parents and the BC Metis Federation are prepared to discontinue all legal proceedings, with the exception, of course, of the finalization of the adoption, and will enter into comprehensive releases involving all of the parties with respect to any and all possible legal outstanding matters.”

Despite repeated requests by the Ministry, JH refused to produce the alleged tape, a tape that if it existed was of questionable origin since the social workers had not recorded the meeting. If a recording existed it could only have been done surreptitiously by the unwitting child.

Madam Justice Fisher found that JH and NG had become blinded by their zeal to obtain custody for the foster parents ignoring that the Ministry could only settle the case if it was in the child’s best interests. To accept JH’s proposal would be a dereliction of their duty to act only in the best interests of their wards. A settlement to avoid scandal, the purported perjury, would be unconscionable. Madam Justice Fisher characterized JH’s conduct as a form of blackmail.

Lawyer NG was chastised for an email he sent accusing a Ministry lawyer of conduct that was “totally outrageous”,”totally unreasonable” and of a pattern of behaviour that showed “utter disrespect for the Court and to counsel”. He then threatened to report the alleged misconduct to the Law Society of British Columbia, apparently forgetting that while counsel may report another lawyer’s conduct, it is inappropriate to threaten to do so. One reports or not, but threats to report are sacrosanct.

The Court found that the lawyers’ conduct, which also included advancing inconsistent versions of their clients’ claims and unreasonable delay tactics was worthy of rebuke in the form of an order that each pay special costs to the Ministry for their egregious conduct, a rare sanction from the court. It is commonplace to order that a litigant pay costs but to order a lawyer to be responsible personally for costs is highly unusual and it is even scarcer to see a judge order special costs, which is typically 90% of the actual costs of the litigation.

The Reasons in this case illustrate that while lawyers should advance every legitimate argument in favour of their client, if they become enmeshed in their client’s cause they may lose objectivity and the perspective required of them. Following a client’s instructions will not protect an overzealous lawyer who is expected to control heated litigation as both an effective advocate and an officer of the court.

It is important to note that both JH and NG retained lawyers to represent them at the hearing where special costs were imposed and I predict that each lawyer will appeal the ruling of Madam Justice Fisher.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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