Premier Kathleen Wynne says the province “will work with” the Law Society of Upper Canada to address questions about whether the professional regulator is adequately protecting the public from bad lawyers.
In the wake of troubling revelations about the quality of investigations into complaints against lawyers in Ontario, Wynne expressed concern about the issue. Wednesday, a former forensic auditor for the law society became the latest voice to speak out against a gag order that prevents investigators from sharing information with police, and said probes are thwarted by heavy caseloads.
Wynne told reporters it is a matter she wants her government to tackle.
“The attorney general and our government will work with the law society,” Wynne told reporters at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.
“Obviously, I want people to have the information that they need. I want all of the issues around privacy to be in place and to be protected,” she said. “But it’s very important to me that people get information in a timely way.”
The premier’s office declined to elaborate on what steps the province would take. But spokeswoman Zita Astravas said in an email the attorney general regularly meets with the law society on many matters, including this one. “As you know the Attorney General and the Law Society want to ensure that there is a proper and fair system in place.”
In a rare move, John Cottrell, who worked as a forensic auditor in the law society’s investigations department from 2007 to 2011, spoke out about his experience, saying he believed it was his “public duty” to do so.
Cottrell told the Star that investigators were overwhelmed with too many cases and under pressure to meet monthly targets and close files quickly. He said he disagreed with confidentiality rules that, he claimed, prohibited investigators from sharing information about suspected criminal activity with law enforcement.
Law society treasurer Janet Minor said in an email Wednesday that “the Law Society recognizes the importance of transparency and disclosure as part of its public interest mandate. We will continue to work with the (attorney general) to ensure that the practices and procedures in place effectively accomplish these goals. We are always looking for improvements that can benefit the public and the professions.”
Sylvia Jones, the Progressive Conservative critic for the Attorney General, has condemned the government for keeping the public “in the dark.”
“When there is no collaboration with law enforcement, there is a greater chance that justice for victims in these cases may be ignored,” Jones told the Star. “The Liberals like to talk about transparency and accountability, but really just prefer to look the other way.”
NDP justice critic Jagmeet Singh is calling for “a concrete plan” to respond to the Star’s ongoing probe of how the law society disciplines its members.
“I think, by and large, the law society is executing its duties well, but these circumstances certainly are troubling,” said Singh, a criminal lawyer and a member of the law society. “As a lawyer, I feel personally interested in ensuring that people have confidence in the administration of justice … More needs to be done.”
Earlier this year, a Star investigation revealed that more than 230 lawyers were sanctioned by the law society over the past decade for criminal-like activity. While most were reprimanded, suspended or disbarred by that body, fewer than one in five were charged criminally, the Star found.
The former head of discipline for the law society, a police officer who investigated fraud by lawyers, and numerous victims have told the Star they believe the profession’s regulator should report bad lawyers to law enforcement.
This week, law society spokesman Roy Thomas said investigators are up to the challenge of conducting “comprehensive and timely investigations” required to protect the public interest.
Thomas said the law society cooperates with police and reports to “appropriate authorities, including police, through a designated process.”