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

Meddling Friends No Help in Divorce

If you are going through a divorce you need all the support you can muster, particularly if you find yourself in the midst of the “affidavit” wars, a stage of divorce litigation where nasty allegations fly fast and furious, and usually turn out to be highly exaggerated and embellished.

It is not unusual for clients, particularly female clients, to visit their lawyer’s office with a sympathetic friend in tow, a practice that I do not discourage subscribing to the theory that friends make the burden lighter.

However, with the recent explosion of “grey” divorce, family law lawyers have noticed that the adult children of their clients are “interfering” in the process, making their jobs more difficult.

Sometimes the interference is the intentional undermining of the legal advice provided by the lawyer to their elderly parent, other times it is directed at the adult offspring’s concern about the loss of their future inheritance, or their desire to force the reconciliation of their parents, a goal that while laudable, may not be in their parent’s best interests, particularly where the marriage is marked by chronic family violence.

Whether the adult child is cajoling their parent to rewrite their will, or sending abusive missives to the parent they deem to be the “guilty” party, most of these tactics only serve to escalate the conflict between their parents.

Well-known British divorce lawyer and media commentator, Marilyn Stowe, remarks:

“A client should be able to rely upon their legal team 100 per cent. Friends (and family) play a completely different role, which is socially centred. It is free of the professional ethics, scruples, obligations, privilege and confidentiality that are the lawyer’s domain.”

Certainly, if you are paying a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour, it is most unwise to discard their professional expertise in favour of a friend or family member, who “only wants to help”, but may have little real insight or knowledge of the process or the law.

Frankly, if you have so little confidence in your lawyer’s advice that you defer to your girlfriend, who has been through two divorces, or your son, who sees his “meal ticket” slipping away, you need to seriously consider hiring a lawyer that commands your respect.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Truth…The Whole Truth About Family Law

I don’t know about you, but I like people, companies, organizations etc. that tell you what they are really all about and where they are at.

For most of the public, law firms are not particularly transparent entities. They deal in complicated subject matters and use complex language to describe what they do, if they ever explain it at all.

Not so, however, with respect to the Columbia, South Carolina law firm of Pincus Family Law. Their firm website tells you exactly what they will do and what they won’t. Their critics say their to-the-point abruptness can’t be good for business. Consider the following excerpts from their website.

Under the heading “Client Expectations” the following paraphrased rules are set out:

1. They do not work weekends and they will not provide clients with a weekend emergency number;

2. They will not routinely respond to email from clients on a weekend, however, if they do on occasion respond, this is the exception and not the rule;

3. They are good at what they do but they are not perfect. They are human beings with the same frailties as their clients. If a mistake is made, they will fix it quickly, but they do not expect to be harangued or insulted by their clients for human error;

4. They will return client phone calls in the order they are received by the firm, subject to their assessment as to client priority. Calling their office three or four times a day will not change the priority assigned to a call;

5. Legal Assistants and Paralegals are available to answer clients’ questions and provide status updates and their hourly billing rates are substantially less than the firm’s lawyers;

6. Being “nice” to your spouse during the divorce process is a laudable goal, but do not expect to get any concessions or consideration from your spouse as a result of your civility;

7. In the litigation process, your spouse’s lawyer will file documents called “pleadings”. These pleadings will contain allegations that may be upsetting to you. Don’t waste your emotional energy fretting over these documents. The allegations are “standard-operating procedure” and may or may not be true;

8. Courtrooms are overbooked and often there are an insufficient number of judges to handle all the scheduled cases. Don’t blame us if we cannot obtain hearing dates as early as you or we would wish. We have no control over court scheduling;

9. Your spouse may retain counsel who are “nasty” or who procrastinate. Once again, that is not our fault. We will work within the rules to keep your case moving forward but we cannot be held responsible for your spouse’s lawyers’ personality disorder or their delay tactics;

10. In divorce and family law, nothing happens quickly. That’s just the way the system is, so be prepared.

My impression? I love it! I have never seen a family law firm that has more succinctly identified some of the major client issues that cause friction between attorney and client. Certainly, many divorce lawyers operate on the same terms, they just don’t do their clients the favour of telling them.

As award-winning journalist Roberta Baskin has noted, there is a public feeding frenzy for transparency, and Pincus Law delivers all of that. Kudos to them!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang