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…

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Family Law Lawyers Must Resist Temptation to Take on Their Client’s Cause as Their Own

GeorgiaLeeLang016In a recent discipline decision from Ontario the presiding adjudicator, David Wright, spoke a sensible caution to family law lawyers whose passion for their clients’ causes can obscure their professional objectivity. He also referenced the problem faced by some counsel who in their minds blend opposing counsel with their clients, castigating them as the “enemy”.

Other comments included the following

“Family law involves personal and intimate matters and the most vulnerable members of our society – children. The issues can lead clients and lawyers to feel passionately, particularly when we have our own histories.

However, clients will not be well served if lawyers cannot work together on effective and proportionate dispute resolution and solutions to the issues. We must separate clients’ views from those of lawyers and recognize that, as lawyers, we only fully have one side of the story.

What is more, clients will not be well served by personal incivility in contentious matters. After all, if lawyers are not civil to each other on a personal level, how can we expect spouses involved in a family breakup, the most stressful time of their lives, to do so? What are we modelling? The legal profession will fall in the public eye if lawyers act in an unprofessional and uncivil manner.”

In the case before Mr. Wright, a senior family law lawyer in a contentious divorce proceeding sent 14 pieces of correspondence over a two year period to opposing counsel. The letters contained threatening, inappropriate and unprofessional language. In a second incident the Lawyer became upset during a court hallway discussion with opposing counsel and raised his voice beyond a level that was professional or acceptable.

The third allegation involved the Lawyer’s courtroom submissions where opposing counsel referred to the Lawyer’s argument as “disingenuous”. The judge later directed the lawyers to work together on a worksheet regarding the trial, but the Lawyer refused to participate until opposing counsel apologized for calling his argument “disingenuous” and made a threat to opposing counsel. The adjudicator found that the Lawyer’s behaviour lacked civility.

Adjudicator Wright noted that family law lawyers work together on different cases and often have multiple files with each other during their professional careers. While this can help promote collegiality, counsel must be able to put aside past perceived wrongs or disputes and start fresh with each new file.

My experience in the B.C. family law bar is that opposing counsel are courteous and civil, however, as a junior lawyer, now many years ago, one senior counsel took advantage of my inexperience with unexpected rudeness and aggression. I later learned she was one of those lawyers who other counsel avoided where possible. I later turned down cases where this lawyer was opposing counsel in order to avoid her nastiness. Lawyers who cultivate this style of practice are only to be pitied, as they must be terribly unhappy with their lives. That’s my two cents!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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Should Lawyer Who Has Sex With His Client be Disbarred?

It is common knowledge that a doctor who enters into an intimate relationship with his/her patient will typically lose his license to practice medicine. But what about lawyers? Is a sexual relationship between a lawyer and his client considered a punishable ethical breach? Is it a conflict of interest and should it warrant disbarment?

The story of Ontario lawyer Anthony Macri provides some insight into this delicate subject. Mr. Macri was acting in a family law case for a vulnerable stay-at-home mom with two young children. She found herself without financial resources to defend herself against her husband’s litigation tactics, which included allegedly vandalizing her personal property.

Falling for a “damsel in distress”,  Mr. Macri began a consensual sexual relationship with his client, a coupling that both hoped would continue after her family law matters were completed. During the course of their romantic trysts, Mr. Macri loaned his client $60,000 to cover her legal fees and personal expenses. She promised to pay him back from her share of the sale proceeds of the family home.

Eventually her home sold, but she refused to reimburse Mr. Macri for the loan. That is when their relationship turned ugly. Mr. Macri retaliated by sending threatening emails and text messages to his former lover saying “You don’t want to screw me over like this. Your case isn’t over. You still need me.” Other messages suggested that Mr. Macri would divulge personal information to her husband.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Macri ‘s lover reported their relationship to the Law Society of Ontario, and was called upon by them to address the issues raised by his clandestine relationship. The hearing tribunal found that Mr. Macri’s behavior in both acting for his client and sleeping with her was a conflict of interest. His loan to her, which he did not disclose to his law firm was the basis for their finding that Mr. Macri lacked integrity, and his inappropriate and abusive emails to her constituted dishonourable conduct.

While physicians who engage in sexual activities with their patients are subject to removal from their profession, there is no similar policy with respect to lawyers.

Lawyer Macri was fired by his law firm; suspended from the practice of law for two and a half months, and fined $2,500 with additional costs of $2,000 payable to the Law Society.

Should lawyers have the same ethical edicts as doctors in Canada? University of Ottawa law professor Adam Dodek was quoted in the “Toronto Star”, saying:

“Lawyers who have sex with their clients should be subject to a mandatory penalty of disbarment, the ultimate penalty that law societies can impose on lawyers. It is surely time to revisit the issue in the public interest.”

Side note: Was Mr. Macri repaid the funds he loaned? No.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Client From Hell

_DSC4851In the mid-2000’s Toronto police officer Richard Wills, pulled off the most masterfully cunning manipulation of Ontario’s justice system and shockingly, got away with it, mainly because nobody cared enough to pay attention. The refrain “It’s not my job” became the mantra that brought the Ontario Attorney-General’s office and Legal Aid Ontario to their knees.

Wills’ married mistress of six years, Linda Mariani, went missing in 2002. Having been dumped by Ms. Mariani, Wills was immediately identified as a viable suspect even though he broadly hinted to his police associates that her husband was the likely culprit. Four months after her disappearance Wills retained top criminal counsel to cut a deal for him. He would admit that Linda accidentally fell down the stairs in his home, and acceding to her wishes, to avoid an undesirable burial in her husband’s mausoleum, he hid her in a 60 gallon vat behind a wall in his home, so he could later bury her in the resting place she desired.

The police weren’t buying what Richard Wills was selling. They located Linda’s body where Wills said it was but the evidence screamed homicide. She had a skipping rope tied around her neck and a baseball bat jammed in beside her. She died of blunt-force trauma. Mr. Wills was promptly charged with first degree murder.

But Richard Wills was not your garden-variety repentant rage killer. No, he was different. Despite overwhelming evidence, including his confessions to at least two persons, he insisted that Linda’s death was accidental, or if it wasn’t, he was mentally ill and therefore incapable of forming the intent to murder her or understand the consequences of his actions.

The “Richard Wills Show” began with a 65 day preliminary hearing, a process designed to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial. Wills paid his first set of lawyers with his own money, after all, he was a millionaire. By the time he had fired multiple sets of new lawyers, he had transferred all his assets, including real estate and his police pension to his ex-wife and was now officially a pauper begging for legal aid. As an indigent criminal defendant the Attorney-General was obliged to follow Canadian case law and compelled to pay for his defence. Legal Aid received funds for Mr. Will’s defence from the Ontario government and was expected to oversee payments to his lawyers, only they didn’t realize they were to do more than just dole out money.

Representing himself for much of the preliminary hearing, his behaviour was outrageous. He was rude and childish, belching, passing gas, lying prone in the prisoner’s docket, and contemptuously degrading, swearing, and insulting the Judge, the prosecutors, and anyone else unlucky enough to be a part of the process.

He regularly urinated in the police van on the way to and from the courthouse and on one occasion displayed a handful of excrement to the Judge after a well-coordinated courtroom bowel movement. He revelled in the spotlight, ignoring the Judge’s admonitions and rebuke and obstreporously belaboured and delayed proceedings with his interminably irrelevant questioning of witnesses.

He rambled and repeated himself with the obvious goal of drawing out and delaying the hearing. He was finally ejected from the courtroom and forced to watch the proceedings via video from a separate room. Ultimately, he achieved his goal when the Attorney-General, in an unusual move, declared an end to the preliminary hearing even though it was far from finished, and directed that Mr. Wills go straight to trial. Of course, pre-trial motions occupied another 144 days before Mr. Wills 84 day trial commenced.

His antics at trial were no different. He laughed out loud, feigned mental illness, bullied his own lawyers and was repeatedly racist.

Legal Aid initially estimated that legal fees for Mr. Wills would amount to about $50,000. Boy, did they miscalculate. Thirteen lawyers took their turn at bat for Mr. Wills, including two “friends of the court.” One of Mr. Will’s last lawyers, Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, was fired by Wills before the trial commenced. He alone billed almost $700,000 for “preparatory work” and was later disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada for overbilling by more than $100,000.

His last and final lawyer, Raj Napal, began his representation by announcing to the Court he would be calling 18 expert witnesses.

If it is not already apparent it was Mr. Wills who was running this trial. On March 1, 2005, Justice Shaughnessy, declared, with no pun intended: “I think we have unfortunately a test of wills here.”

Sadly, at the end of this fiasco, the administration of justice and Ontario taxpayers were the fools, while Mr. Wills sits in prison, convicted of first degree murder, no doubt confounding prison authorities and fellow lifers.

Yes, it is the inmates running the asylum, or in this case, dictating the administration of justice.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

DISBARRED THE SERIES: GARTH DRABINSKY

GEO_edited-1How far the mighty fall….Garth Drabinsky was an entertainment mogul in the world of theatre, whose productions including Phantom of the Opera, Showboat, Sunset Boulevard, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, garnered nineteen Tony awards for Drabinsky’s production company Livent. Prior to his foray into live theatrical production, he was an independent film producer, and later with a partner co-founded Cineplex Theatres in Canada in 1979, eventually acquiring Odeon Theatres to establish Cineplex Odeon, a venture he was forced out of in 1989 after accumulating unmanageable debt.

Born in Toronto, he obtained a law degree from the University of Toronto in 1973 and was called to the Ontario bar in 1975, working briefly as an entertainment lawyer, but his legal credentials paled in comparison to his success in show business. He became a Broadway darling, said to be responsible for 25% of North America’s live theatre revenues. Along the way he received a Queen’s Counsel designation, the prestigious Order of Canada, took Livent public, and appeared to be at the top of his game.

But things aren’t always as they seem. The reality was that Drabinsky was awash in financial problems due to excessive production costs, along with millions of dollars expended to build or renovate venues for his productions. To the surprise of many, in 1998 Livent received a $20 million dollar injection from Michael Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, the world’s largest talent agency and later President of Walt Disney Corporation.

With new money Drabinsky was on a roll, that is until forensic auditors hired by Michael Ovitz discovered that Drabinsky and his partner Myron Gottlieb were “cooking” the books in order to hide their massive financial losses. In this case, they created two sets of books, one that painted a rosy picture and the second that revealed the stark reality of their nearly bankrupt company.

These events saw the dismissal of Drabinsky and Gottlieb from Livent in August of 1998 and the commencement of a $225 million dollar civil lawsuit against them. But worse things were down the pike.

In 1999 authorities in New York indicted Grabinsky and Gottleib accusing them of misappropriating $4.6 million dollars from Livent. Meanwhile the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and securities regulators in the United States and Canada began investigating.

Finally, in 2002 four Livent executives, including Drabinsky and Gottlieb, were charged with fraud and accounting irregularities between 1989 and 1998. The allegations were ugly: forged financial statements, Livent purchasing large blocks of theatre tickets to falsely create an “uber-successful” production, and enticing investors to inject over $500 million dollars into the company based on fake documents.

After years of delay, said to arise from Garth Drabinsky’s lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, being fully occupied by the Lord Conrad Black fraud case in Chicago, Drabinsky finally faced justice. After a 65 day trial, Drabinsky was found guilty and sentenced to a seven-year prison term, which ultimately after appeal, was reduced to five years.

Recently steps were taken by the Canadian government to rescind his Order of Canada, and last week the Law Society of Upper Canada disbarred him, despite glowing reference letters from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Frank Iacobucci.

Has Garth Drabinsky taken responsibility for his crimes? Sort of, but he still says that the fraud was a result of computer software that he didn’t understand.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang