On May 23, 2014 Toronto Star published this op ed piece by Mary Jo Leddy: Far too many refugees who are deserving of protection are placed in serious danger because of the negligence of their lawyers.
Finally, we are talking about the fact that there are dirty rotten lawyers. Thanks in no small measure to the Star, we are reading the facts about legal misconduct, negligence and even corruption. Finally, the Law Society of Upper Canada seems to be taking its disciplinary responsibility seriously. I have been waiting for years to see this happen.Legal misconduct leaves many victims in its wake. A few of those victims complain to the Law Society, and some are eventually vindicated. At stake is property or reputation or life savings. But no one has more at stake than refugees when they fall victim to an incompetent or unscrupulous lawyer. Then life itself can be at stake.In February, the Law Society began proceedings against one refugee lawyer on the grounds that he had “engaged in professional misconduct.” The first day of the proceedings at the Law Society indicated that there were 18 refugees who had complained against this lawyer. I suspect there were many others who could have complained, should have complained, but who never thought they would be taken seriously.It is impossible to overstate the importance of legal representation for refugees who arrive in this country. They have no understanding of the refugee determination procedures. Many come from places where they have no experience of having their rights taken seriously. Some languages, I have learned, do not even have a word for “rights.” Refugees depend on their lawyer to shepherd them through a process that is obscure even to most Canadians.When a lawyer does not prepare a refugee for a hearing, when he or she does not submit evidence given by a refugee, when he or she does not even appear at a hearing, the refugee’s claim is seriously compromised and all appeals after that are also jeopardized.The courts of appeal and politicians who are a last hope of justice tend to assume that the refugee has been through a fair legal process.However, a fair system depends on fair and experienced judges or adjudicators, on honest and competent lawyers, on effective oversight of the conduct of both the lawyers, adjudicators and judges.Much has been made of the misconduct of members of the Immigration and Refugee Board. However, in my experience of working with refugees for almost 25 years I would say that the misconduct of lawyers is at least as significant. Far too many refugees who are genuinely deserving of protection are placed in serious danger because of the negligence or misconduct of their lawyers. This is the dirty little secret that must be exposed. This must begin with the Law Society improving its disciplinary process and by Legal Aid Ontario taking responsibility for the quality of legal work it funds.There are many fine, honest and talented refugee lawyers who work for very little money. However, far too much of their time goes into trying to right a wrong that was committed by a few lawyers with many clients whose negligence seriously compromised a refugee’s claim.The present system of justice is seriously tipped in favour of the lawyer. The lawyer can draw out the complaints process long enough to ensure that the refugee who has complained will eventually be deported before any decision is rendered. The minister of immigration could act to right the scales of justice by granting refugees a temporary residence permit until the complaint has been heard. Then if the complaint is upheld, the refugee, as a matter of natural justice, should be granted a new hearing.Take the case of Jozef Pusuma, a human rights activist from Hungary who has complained about the misconduct of his lawyer. It took 27 months before the initial investigation was completed. Threatened with deportation, Jozsef took refuge in a church where he and his wife and little girl have been living for almost 30 months while the Law Society process grinds on. He is one of the few complainants left to testify against this lawyer. If he also is deported, the case against the lawyer will probably fold and file away.In this case, the minister of immigration is, perhaps unconsciously, putting a big thumb on the scale of justice and tipping it in favour of the lawyer. The minister’s staff has insisted that there was a fair process for Jozsef Pusuma. How can they be so sure when the lawyer has been charged with misconduct after a 27-month investigation?The minister, indeed any representative of the government of this country, should not be seen to be aiding and abetting legal misconduct. Let the Law Society begin to exercise its responsibility and let it conclude.