We Need To Be Better Than 'Good': When Lawyers Dishonour the Profession Through Sexual Abuse

the scales of justice

Can someone be of "good character" and also be "an ongoing risk to children"? Many people would find it difficult to square that circle. 

But the independent Law Society Tribunal appeared to find there was no such contradiction when it upheld an earlier ruling permitting an unnamed man who sexually abused children to practise as a lawyer provided he is not alone with minors.   

In upholding its original ruling - one that outraged the public and many other lawyers alike - the Tribunal rejected the arguments of the Law Society of Ontario, which quickly announced it would seek leave for appeal at divisional court.

Like many people reading news stories relating to this case, I am appalled at the Tribunal's decision and find fault with its reasoning. In this blog post, I explain why Ontario's legal regulator has strenuously objected to permitting this man to practise law in the province, why the independent Tribunal disagreed, and how this matter impacts survivors of sexual violence seeking justice.

Past Abuse and the Abuser's Hope for Redemption.

The man (known as AA in Tribunal documents) at the centre of this case initially applied for a licence to practise law in Ontario in 2012. During the application process, he did not disclose that he sexually abused children on three occasions three years earlier when living with his family in another country.   

When confronted by the father of one of these children, AA revealed what had happened to his then-wife, a child protection agency, and several others. He was never criminally charged in that country, but required supervision when around children. When a Canadian child protection agency became aware of the abuse, it also recommended that he not be in the presence of children unsupervised. That recommendation remains in effect.   

An anonymous tip alerted the Law Society to the past abuse and AA abandoned his first application in 2017. Upon later reapplying, AA admitted he acted "dishonestly" during his first application. As the Tribunal report noted: "He rationalised and tried to justify his actions, describing himself as scrambling to avoid the shame as he imagined that he could not survive in a world where he was outed as a child sex offender."   

The Law Society pointed to AA's actions between 2009 and 2017 (including not being forthcoming with medical doctors with whom he sought treatment for sexual dysfunction, or the Society) as an eight-year period of dishonesty guided by self-interest. Moreover, it argued "the public is entitled to expect that licensees will be held to a high standard of honesty and trustworthiness. Any misconduct involving deception, lack of integrity or intent to mislead is troubling as it has the effect of eroding public trust in the profession."   

Although the Tribunal agreed with the Society's assessment of that period, in granting him the right to practise law in Ontario (once he is called to the bar), the Tribunal concluded AA has demonstrated he is now of good character because he has been "open and diligent in acknowledging his past conduct and its impact and has actively sought treatment for his sexual dysfunction."

The Tribunal noted that AA wanted to "focus his practice in the service of marginalised communities [and he] believes that he can seek redemption by being of use to others."   

In September 2023, after the Tribunal's ruling cleared the way for AA to practise in Ontario, the Law Society successfully blocked his ability to be called to the bar pending the outcome of its appeal. The Law Society argued that given the overwhelming outrage expressed by the public to news of the Tribunal's good-character ruling, public confidence in the legal profession was clearly in jeopardy.   

However, the regulator unsuccessfully argued to the Tribunal's appeal panel that being of "good character" was incongruent with the condition that AA be prohibited from being around children.   

With the Law Society's appeal to the Tribunal dismissed, the regulator is now seeking appeal from the divisional court and seeking a stay in the Tribunal's decision to prevent AA from being called to the bar until the appeal is heard.   

What Does this Ruling Signal to the Public, and Especially Survivors?

The Law Society of Ontario's decision to pursue multiple appeals of the Tribunal's ruling not only suggests it vigorously disagrees with its rationale, but also how concerned it may bring the profession into disrepute.   

Like all people, lawyers are not perfect. We are fallible. When we do make mistakes, be they in our professional or personal lives, we understand that the Society can take action that imposes consequences, including publicizing information about misconduct, poor judgement, or special requirements that must be adhered to in order to continue to practice. When an offence is very serious or a lawyer's actions have been egregious, the Society can seek to disbar them.

By taking these actions, our professional regulator not only protects our collective reputation as lawyers, but also, and most importantly, protects the public from people who cannot uphold such professional standards. This is exceptionally important for our justice system. Members of the public who are consulting lawyers are in a uniquely vulnerable position as they often need a lawyer or paralegal to effectively represent their interests in matters before the court.   

Does every potential client investigate the Law Society's case files on complaints or the Tribunal's rulings before engaging with a lawyer? No. Not by a long shot. It's much more likely that they would first seek out this information if they have a bad experience or are already looking into filing their own complaint.   

In the case of AA, the Tribunal is mandating supervision if he is among minors. While this requirement would protect children from potential abuse, it does not address how an adult survivor of abuse would feel if they learned they had placed their trust in a legal professional who had abused children in the past, who was initially dishonest and not forthcoming about the matter with the Law Society, and who still is considered to be a sufficient risk to minors that he requires supervision.   

While laudable in theory, AA's intention to work with marginalized communities in order to seek redemption by being of use to others is also a real concern in practice. Members of marginalized communities are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence. They also face additional barriers that may dissuade them from feeling secure enough to report these crimes.   

AA's practice may not encompass any part of civil or criminal sexual abuse or sexual assault law. But our clients are whole people. We cannot assume that their interaction with us as legal professionals can be compartmentalized in such a way. They are putting their trust in us at moments in their life in which they may be uniquely vulnerable.

Being of Good Character is Not Enough.

Barring the Divisional Court overturning the Law Society Tribunal's ruling, if AA is deemed to be "of good character" and permitted to practice law (while supervised around minors), it's time for our profession to have some serious discussions about enacting higher standards.   

And, this discussion must begin by addressing existing issues among lawyers themselves. We cannot tell our clients they can expect high standards of professional conduct if we do not demand these standards from each other.   

As a personal injury lawyer who has focused her practice on representing plaintiffs in sexual assault cases and and sexual abuse cases, I understand very well that establishing the trust of survivors of sexual abuse can be extremely difficult. As a profession, we cannot allow ourselves to stand for decisions that will make it even harder for survivors to build those bridges after what they have experienced. 

If you or a loved one have suffered from sexual abuse or sexual assault, you should know you are not alone. Contact me or our team of Toronto sexual abuse lawyers anytime to learn more about your rights and options.


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