BC Notaries Challenge to Lawyers’ Turf Dismissed

GeorgiaLeeLang025What is the difference between a notary public and a lawyer? While notaries are held to the highest standards of ethics, their training is far different than that of a lawyer. They must have an undergraduate degree with a B average, complete an 18 month course and write exams, and then do 6 weeks of practical training with the Society of Notaries.

As for lawyers, most have an undergraduate degree and are then required to complete 3 years of law school, followed by a 1 year articling program which includes a 9 week professional legal training course, and then pass the rigorous bar exam.

Interestingly, lawyers in British Columbia are automatically awarded the designation of notary once they are called to bar.

What services can notaries offer? Most commonly notaries take oaths on affidavits or statutory declarations, prepare residential real estate transfers, and mortgage documents, draft powers of attorney, and prepare simple wills.

It is the drafting of wills that has been the subject of discontent among notaries, who recently brought a court challenge, seeking to expand their will repetoire to include the preparation of wills that contain life estates and trusts.

In a court decision dated December 21, 2017, The Society of Notaries Public of British Columbia v. The Law Society of British Columbia 2017 BCCA 448, the BC Court of Appeal dismissed the notaries action. The restriction on notaries regarding wills is found in the Notaries Act RSBC 1996 c.344:

s. 18 “A member enrolled and in good standing may do the following:

(b) draw and supervise the execution of wills

(i) by which the will-maker directs the will-maker’s estate to be distributed immediately on death,

(ii) that provide that if the beneficiaries named in the will predecease the will-maker, there is a gift over to alternative beneficiaries vesting immediately on the death of the will-maker, or

(iii) that provide for the assets of the deceased to vest in the beneficiary or beneficiaries as members of a class not later than the date when the beneficiary or beneficiaries or the youngest of the class attains majority;”

The Court of Appeal held that the legislation did not contemplate the drafting of wills that included trusts or life estates. They summarized and rejected the following argument made on behalf of the notaries:

“For example, they say that when a will-maker leaves real property to A subject to B having a life interest in that property, since A’s interest vests immediately, the property has been “distributed immediately” to A, notwithstanding the fact that A is not entitled to possession or use of the property until B dies. I am unable to accept this argument.”

This is not the first time notaries have sought to increase the services they may provide. In an earlier British Columbia decision, The Law Society of British Columbia v. MacDonald 2013 BCSC 1204, the Law Society successfully sued notary public Ms. Macdonald and sought an injunction against her for the unauthorized practice of law. She had prepared a will that included a trust and a life estate.

The expansion of legal services to professional who are not lawyers remains controversial, but where access to justice has become critical right across Canada, it is in the public’s interest to expand the expertise of those trained to provide legal assistance. With respect to the notaries, their court overtures have been rebuffed. Perhaps they should now focus on lobbying the provincial government to amend the Notaries Act and legislate additional training to accommodate expanded legal services.

In other jurisdictions, like Ontario, paralegals have been given enhanced status and are licensed and regulated through Ontario’s Law Society. They can practice independently, without supervision by a lawyer, if they meet the educational requirements and practice standards. Notably, licensed paralegals can represent clients in Small Claims Court, and handle matters under the Provincial Offences Act and summary convictions where the penalty is not more than 6 months imprisonment. They may also give advice and act for clients in residential tenancy matters and worker’s compensation matters.

My view is that the public needs more legal services from qualified individuals, not less. Lawyers who are good at what they do need not be threatened by notaries public or licensed paralegals.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

.

Advertisements

Scam/Spam Legal Awards: Lawyers and Clients Be Aware

BarristerThis post is directed to both lawyers and clients who wonder whether the “Awards” boasted by their favourite law firm or lawyer are legitimate or whether they are “scam”, ego, or pay-to-play awards.

One good example is found in the email I received today:

“FINANCE MONTHLY is pleased to inform you that you have made the shortlist for the 2018 Law Awards.
You have been shortlisted in the category of:

Family Lawyer of the Year
Canada

Winners will be notified the week commencing 8th January 2018′

Last week I was told that “CorporateLiveWire” was considering me for a leading arbitrator award in Canada….yeah, right!

My first reaction was that these were not legitimate lawyer ranking services and a quick online search confirmed I was correct. But how is a client to know whether the awards touted by lawyers are fake or real. Often a look at the criteria for selection tells a lot. For example, the “Top Choice” awards require:

“Each Nominee must be in business for a minimum of 2 years

Each Nominee must conduct fair business practices

Each Nominee should have an acceptable clean and neat exterior and interior image location – what a business portrays to their “walk in” customers is fairly important.

Each Nominee is in need of an acceptable online image – websites should be easy to understand and navigate while still maintaining a pleasant image.

Each Nominee must have online reviews, with a minimum of 75% positive online business reviews and a maximum of 25% negative online business reviews.

Each Nominee must have one or more acceptable social media outlet presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn)

Each nominee must have a minimum of 25 nominations”

The Top Choice website entices consumers with the following:

“Entering its 11th year, the Top Choice Awards Gala is a premiere event, often referred to by guests as the “Oscars” for business.”

In June 2016 the Better Business Bureau warned:

“Better Business Bureau Warns Groups Not to Fall for Vanity Scam

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest has received numerous reports of an email scam targeting small businesses across the country. In the past 24 days BBB Scam Tracker has received 23 reports from potential victims in the Northwest region. This ploy is known as the vanity award scheme —one we’ve reported on in the past.

The email informs small businesses and nonprofits they are a recipient of a “Best of (insert city name) Award.” But in order to claim their trophy, they have to pay up. Business owners report being asked to pay anywhere from $149 to $229 to claim the honor and receive a personalized plaque.”

Yes, there are some valid lawyer ranking services including “Best Lawyers”, “Lexpert”, “Superlawyers” (US only) “Benchmark Litigation”, “Chambers”, “Leading Lawyers”, and “Martindale Hubbell”, however, many of the other companies exist simply to sell advertising in magazines or plaques touting the “winner’s” name. Others will publish your legal articles, if you pay them to do that. Not unlike lawyers who do radio or television shows but have to pay to appear. That’s right, they don’t get paid, they pay the producer of the show to appear on the show.

I remember being asked to appear on Judge Harvey Brownstone’s Canadian television show, an offer I declined once I learned they wanted me to pay him to appear.

For those interested, a good site to check out is “Who Hates Spammy Lawyer Awards?”, the brainchild of law firm website designer, Igor Ilyinsky who ranks lawyers’ awards as “Reputable, Not Reputable, Pure Spam”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Courtrooms Flooded with Litigants With No Lawyers

GEO CASUALIt’s not getting any easier to be a judge these days, as self-represented litigants continue to overwhelm Canadian courts in increasing numbers.

With the abolition of Legal Aid and a middle-class that can’t afford to hire lawyers, the situation has become dire.

University of Windsor law professor Julie MacFarlane’s research indicates that up to 80% of court users in family law go into court without a lawyer.

The popular cliché that people who represent themselves in court have fools for clients has never been more true, and despite the increasing availability of pro bono legal services, rarely does free legal advice mean that a lawyer will show up in court.

While it is lawyers that have the reputation for talking too much and wasting court time, the truth is that court cases with lay litigants take up many more court hours because rules of evidence and procedure, while somewhat relaxed for in-person litigants, must still be maintained to ensure due process and the integrity of our justice system.

In a recent court case, with no counsel, where the issue was whether a Pakistani divorce was authentic and legitimate, one judge said:

“I record that I began this case at 10.30 a.m. this morning and I am now concluding it around 3.30 p.m. It has, accordingly, effectively occupied the whole of the court day. By sheer good fortune, the other case which had been listed for hearing by me today was vacated [postponed] yesterday for reasons connected with its readiness. If that case had not been vacated, I, and the litigants in that case, would have been faced with very considerable difficulties and a severe shortage of court time, and probably also additional expenditure to the parties in that case who, as likely as not, would have to have returned on another day.”

The judge found that the divorce was valid, but was justice really served when he noted that he did not have any basic materials, no orderly bundle of relevant documents, no chronology, no case summaries, and no real argument.

Professor MacFarlane’s observation that “it’s the inmates who are running the asylum” is sadly apropos.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Toronto Lawyer’s $2 Million Dollar Fraud Conviction Upheld

GEO#1Yesterday the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed Toronto corporate lawyer, Remy Boghossian’s appeal from his 2015 conviction for an almost $2 million dollar fraud on the Royal Bank of Canada. (R. v. Boghossian, 2017 ONCA 870 CanLII)

The scam involved Mr. Boghossian and two co-accused acquiring a forged TD Canada Trust bank draft for $1,895,751 in February 2011 from an unidentified bank insider at the Mississauga branch of the TD bank. The funds were then deposited into Mr. Boghossian’s trust account, whereafter he purchased, in two separate transactions, Australian-minted gold bullion from a company in Montreal.

Mr. Boghossian’s lawyer argued that his client purchased the gold on behalf of a client, Omar Ali, who was a real estate developer going through a divorce who wanted to hide the money from his wife. He asserted that his client was a victim of the scam and had been duped into participating. The trial judge found that Mr. Ali did not exist and was created to advance the fraud. He held that a strong circumstantial case had been established and that the three accused acted together to knowingly defraud the Royal Bank by presenting a forged TD bank draft.

The court heard that Boghossian’s two accomplices tried to sell some of the gold bars, but a wary gold dealer recognized the “kangaroo” logo on the bars and contacted the police.

What remains a mystery is who the insider at the TD Bank is and where the gold bars are now. Media reports indicate that the police have discontinued their investigation of these two matters.

Mr. Boghossian also appealed his 3 1/2 year sentence, arguing that as his co-accused only received 3 years each, his sentence should be reduced to three years. The Court of Appeal dismissed the sentence appeal saying:

“In our view, the extra six months awarded the appellant does not raise parity concerns. The appellant was a lawyer. His status as a lawyer and the role his status as a lawyer played in the commission of the offence justified treating this as an aggravating factor, warranting a somewhat higher sentence for the appellant. We see no error in the sentence imposed.”

It is expected that the Law Society of Ontario will disbar Mr. Boghossian.

.

How “Uncivil” Can a Lawyer be in Court? The Groia Case

GEO_edited-1If you are a litigator in Canada you should know the name “Joe Groia”. He is a masterful legal advocate from Ontario who specializes in securities law. His prominence in the legal profession was capped this week when Groia v. The Law Society of Upper Canada (now the Law Society of Ontario) was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada. (Law Society of Upper Canada v. Joseph Peter Paul Groia, 2012 ONLSHP 94)

Why is Mr. Groia suing Ontario’s Law Society and why would the Supreme Court of Canada agree to hear his case? In June 2012 the Law Society held that Mr. Groia had professionally misconducted himself while defending his client John Felderhof in an action taken against him by the Ontario Securities Commission. You may recall that Mr. Felderhof was second in command at Bre-X Minerals Ltd, the Canadian-owned gold mine in Borneo that turned out to be a fraud, leaving thousands of investors with losses of hundreds of millions of dollars after investing in the bogus company.

Groia’s representation of Mr. Felderhof was second-to-none, as Mr. Felderhof, after 160 days of trial, was acquitted of all charges. However, the Law Society took it upon themselves to call Mr. Groia to account for his allegedly “uncivil” behaviour during the proceedings, conduct so egregious that during the trial, lawyers for the Ontario Securities Commission asked the judge to stop the trial arguing that he had lost jurisdiction by failing to rein in Mr. Groia’s outrageously rude behaviour in the courtroom. That application failed and the trial continued.

Two Ontario courts reviewed and upheld the Law Society’s ruling against Mr. Groia, describing his trial conduct as “unrestrained invective”, excessive rhetoric”, “theatrically excessive”, “sarcastic and petulant”, “more guerrilla theatre than advocacy in court”, and “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity”.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy and significant to Mr. Groia’s defence that the trial judge did not hold him in contempt, neither did he report Mr. Groia’s trial behaviour to the Law Society.

Groia, in rebuttal offered the following arguments:

1. He cast no personal aspersions against opposing counsel, but only targeted the Securities Commission and the prosecution;

2. His basis for alleging prosecutorial misconduct was based on his reasonably held views;

3. His language was mischaracterized by the Law Society and the courts;

4. The tone of the trial was an important factor in assessing his conduct, particularly in light of the prosecutor’s behaviour;

5. The Law Society retroactively applied standards of the “civility movement” to his conduct; and

6. His obligation as an effective advocate outstripped any absence of civility.

Without reading the whole of the transcripts of the trial, it is difficult to assess whether Mr. Groia’s behaviour fell so far below the standard of professionalism of a barrister that he ought to have been sanctioned by the Law Society. His original punishment was a two-month suspension of his license to practice law and an order that he pay costs of $250,000. This penalty was later reduced by the courts to a one-month suspension and $200,000 in costs.

Mr. Groia would, of course, argue that even reading the transcripts one would not be in a position to assess the conduct and roles of each of the counsel and judge at the trial and that may very well be true. It’s the old story that “you had to be there” to understand the dynamics.

Media reports from the hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada this week, appear to underscore the high court’s focus on the absence of disapproval from the trial judge, who was best placed to determine whether Mr. Groia’s conduct sunk to a level where he deserved to be chastised or disciplined.

As a trial lawyer in hard-fought cases, I tend to agree that it is not the Law Society’s place to interfere as a back-seat referee in a hotly contested proceeding where an unsuccessful defence will lead to dire consequences for the accused.

The Supreme Court of Canada clearly wants to provide guidance to litigators. We must now wait to see what the Supremes think…

Not Ready for Trial? Ontario Court Says Too Bad….

GeorgiaLeeLang057An Ontario judge has spoken out clearly about counsel who book trials and then abandon them on short notice to the courts. In Armstrong v. Armstrong, 2017 ONSC 6568, Mr. Justice Pazaratz called the case, involving a reduction or termination of spousal support, only to learn that the litigants in the case were not available, and an adjournment was sought by both counsel.

Counsel had earlier agreed and the court permitted them to adjourn the trial, then set for August 2017. At that hearing, counsel had agreed the trial would proceed in October 2017 for three days.

Counsel advised the court that an error had occurred and their clients incorrectly believed the rescheduled trial would take place in January 2018. Counsel also stated that a settlement conference had not been booked which might assist the parties to settle. As well, one of the lawyers indicated he had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon. Judge Pazaratz queried counsel as to why a trial was booked if settlement had not yet been explored, and also opined that the court would and could work around counsel’s medical appointment, but that did not justify an adjournment of the trial. He also said:

“The implications of attending court on day one of a three day trial and requesting an adjournment go far beyond merely wasting one day of court time. Judges and trials are scheduled based on a balancing of multiple scheduling considerations. If this three day time slot becomes wasted, there may be far-reaching consequences (for example another three day trial could have been called, but if I am only available for two more days this week, it means I don’t have enough time to deal with that other matter).”

Judge Pazaratz advised counsel to get their clients to court immediately so the matter could proceed unless a settlement was reached, and warned them that if the matter was not settled and the trial did not go ahead, he would dismiss their case.

Counsel returned with a consent order in which each party withdrew their claims on a without prejudice basis, however, the Court was not impressed with counsels’ tactics saying:

“The problem, of course, is that if people can simply withdraw claims when they aren’t ready for trial, there’s nothing to stop them from re-commencing those claims in short order, and creating even further stress and expense for the system. We have an obligation to ensure that judicial resources are appropriately utilized and not misused. I am not prepared to allow the parties to simply withdraw their claims on a without prejudice basis.”

Judge Pazaratz then dismissed the claims, but not on the merits, saying that if either party wished to return to court to deal with any of the claims, they would require permission from the Court to proceed, and that in the event that occurred, he would be the judge dealing with the matter.

Where courts are being criticized for a lack of judicial time and unreasonable delays in meting out justice, Judge Pazaratz’s ruling is a welcome response to counsel who abuse the system. While “courthouse steps” settlements are to be encouraged, in this case it was apparent from counsels’ remarks that settlement had not yet been broached; that no trial preparation had been undertaken; and that counsel were content to show up, without their clients, expecting a favourable or neutral response to their self-imposed dilemma.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Looking for a Lawyer? Buyer Beware

GeorgiaLeeLang057The practice of law is both a profession and a business. Many lawyers can rely on their winning track record and high ethics to gain a reputation that engenders word-of mouth referrals.

Other lawyers buttress their status in the profession with advertising. Gone are the days, however, of yellow pages ads.

Today’s lawyers utilize television, radio, and the internet to entice potential clients. Many of these ads fall into the “conservative, balding lawyer standing in front of a bookcase” category. While others are innovative, even racy! Case in point:

An all-women law firm in Chicago created a billboard ad that read “Life’s Short. Get a Divorce.” The ad featured a photo of an attractive woman in her lingerie beside a handsome man with a six-pack. It turned out that the woman who posed for the ad was the lead attorney at the firm and the dude with her was her personal trainer. She reported that the firm was inundated with phone calls. Unfortunately, the billboard was removed seven days after it went up for an alleged by-law infringement.

Other forays into to the world of marketing are less provocative but no less effective. One family law firm, again an all-women firm, launched their print marketing with the headline “Ever Argue With A Woman?” I think they made their point very clear!

Lubbock Texas is the home of a personal injury lawyer whose billboard screams, “Injured? Get the Gorilla!” and yes, a huge gorilla dominates the advertisement.

Other law firms have raised the hackles of their governing bodies with their ads.

In Nevada a lawyer bills himself as “The Heavy Hitter” in his rambunctious television spots and a Polish speaking lawyer ran an ad on a Polish-language radio station referring to himself as “The Lion of the Court”. The trouble was that he had never tried a case in court!