No joking matter

British Columbia lawyer Michael Ranspot, who I’ll come back to in a minute, is not someone for the profession to be proud of; but jokes are not the way to deal with him.

Some of those many lawyer jokes are pretty funny; all of them draw attention to common complaints about lawyers: we over bill, we’re lazy; we’re cutthroat; we don’t listen to our clients; we’ll do anything to get (and win) a case; we have no ethical standards; we can’t be trusted. In short, we’re a mendacious, greedy bunch.

I don’t think lawyers should be free from criticism, but I have to admit I have grown a bit weary of the jokes. Sure, there are bad lawyers, but there are bad doctors, nurses, electricians, engineers, dentists, teachers and others, whose poor performance can also cause harm to people, and there is just not the same body of so-called humour about them.

I’ve met a lot of good lawyers over the course of my work. Do we make mistakes? Sure. Do we sometimes cut a corner? Probably. We can all have a bad day, offer legal advice that proves not to be the best or come across sounding pompous or arrogant. None of this is good. But, setting the truly bad lawyers aside for a minute, the majority of lawyers do a good job for their clients. After all, many of us went into law because we wanted to help people at what can be the most difficult or vulnerable time in their lives.

And most of us aren’t among the super-rich. The average income for a lawyer in Toronto – where most of the big money corporate lawyers are — is just under $100,000. Compare that to the average annual income of a medical doctor in Ontario, which is around $357,000.

Governing lawyers

Lawyers in Ontario are governed by the Law Society of Ontario, created in 1797 to govern lawyers (and now paralegals) “in the public interest by ensuring that the people of Ontario are served by lawyers and paralegals who meet high standards of learning, competence and professional conduct.”

Similar bodies exist in all of Canada’s provinces and territories. Law societies generally have responsibility for licensing, regulating and, when necessary, disciplining lawyers, who must follow rules of professional conduct that are set by each jurisdiction.

There are a lot of rules, but none of them prohibits a lawyer from having a sexual relationship with a client. This is very different from many other professional colleges and regulatory bodies that acknowledge the inherent power imbalance between professional and client/patient and explicitly state that the professional cannot enter into an intimate and/or sexual relationship with a client or patient.

Insignificant inconveniences

It seems that such a rule might be a good idea for lawyers, given the behaviour of the afore-mentioned Mr. Ranspot and, doubtless, other lawyers across the country.

Mr, Ranspot was recently disciplined by the Law Society of British Columbia after he admitted to beating up his then-girlfriend while he was also representing her in divorce proceedings.

His client, identified as CC in the proceedings in order to protect her privacy, filed a complaint against Ranspot six years ago, after he beat her up in her home, causing injuries serious enough for her to require medical attention. In 2016, he pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm, for which he received a conditional discharge (meaning the conviction was removed from his criminal record once he completed a period of probation).

Despite the guilty plea in criminal court and the fact that Ranspot had twice before been disciplined by the Law Society, he received what CC described as a “slap on the wrist:” a three-month suspension from practice and a costs award of just over $12,000. (That money goes not to CC but to the Law Society.)

CC commented to the CBC:

“These insignificant inconveniences are not effective at impacting . . . these ‘officers of the court,’ people who are most educated on the laws of this country – the same people the public expects to know right from wrong.”

The discipline panel defended its decision by noting that the penalty it imposed was consistent with the maximum sanction in recent cases of intimate partner violence by lawyers.

CC has other concerns about the process, including the many delays that meant the discipline committee’s decision came more than six years after the assault:

“It takes a lot of strength and courage to come forward as a victim of domestic violence, and to go through all the motions and steps of legal proceedings. But it adds insult to injury when a disciplinary hearing drags on. . . [and] the assailant, someone who has so negatively impacted your entire life, is able to go on like nothing has happened.”

Looking inward first

I expect lawyers — whether they represent clients who are survivors or perpetrators or prosecute offenders – to take the issue of gender-based violence seriously.

To do that, we need first to make sure our own house is in order, which means updating our rules of professional conduct and setting new precedents that reflect current public attitudes towards gender-based violence. Lawyers who enter into intimate relationships with their clients should receive serious sanctions, and those who abuse clients with whom they are in an intimate relationship should lose the privilege of practicing law permanently.

Lawyers who behave like Mr. Ranspot are no joke. They warrant serious discipline, not a slap on the wrist. Both the profession as a whole and clients deserve no less.  

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