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Mr. Penney’s website colourfully recounts the travails of a client named ‘Rico,’ who was ‘scouting for work’ and ‘exploring a woman’s home’ but who ‘explored too much.’
Mr. Penney’s website colourfully recounts the travails of a client named ‘Rico,’ who was ‘scouting for work’ and ‘exploring a woman’s home’ but who ‘explored too much.’

Study decries criminal defence lawyers’ online marketing Add to ...

On one Toronto criminal defence lawyer’s website, an alleged sexual assault in a woman’s home by a man posing as a plumber is described as a “wardrobe malfunction” in which “his penis made a brief escape.”

Another law firm’s web page says sexual assault complainants are “often motivated by jealousy or anger” and “sometimes suffer from regret after sex.” Several lawyers’ websites promise “aggressive” or “confrontational” cross-examinations of alleged victims at trial. And some boast of previous cases in which apparently guilty men were allowed to go free.

The websites, cited in a new study, offer a glimpse of a seldom-examined corner of online marketing by some criminal defence lawyers across Canada. Some of that marketing, the study concluded, “trivializes” sexual violence by invoking “outdated assumptions” about the issue, and could violate the legal profession’s ethical rules.

Those rules do not allow lawyers to imply they are “aggressive,” and they require lawyers’ advertising to be in the “best interests of the public” and “consistent with a high standard of professionalism.”

The study, an academic paper based on the results of Google searches for “sexual assault lawyer” in 10 cities in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, comes amid a controversy over the way sexual misconduct allegations are handled that was prompted by allegations about former CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, MPs on Parliament Hill and U.S. comedian Bill Cosby.

The study’s author, assistant law professor Elaine Craig of Dalhousie University in Halifax, argues law societies need to update rules that predate the digital age to reflect how lawyers increasingly use the Internet to advertise.

“Some of the content on the websites, it’s troubling. But it’s also an opportunity to start a discussion … in terms of the ways in which the legal profession engages in discourse about sexual violence,” Prof. Craig said in an interview.

Most troubling, she said, were passages on several websites that boasted of winning acquittals for clients who, according to the website’s own accounts, appear guilty – something she said could run afoul of the legal profession’s ethics rules.

She also cites the “irreverent descriptions” of sexual assault cases on some websites, including one posted by Toronto criminal lawyer Craig Penney, who colourfully recounts the travails of a client named “Rico,” who was “scouting for work” and “exploring a woman’s home” but who “explored too much.”

“While in a tight spot, his wardrobe malfunctioned, and his penis made a brief escape. Rico apologized but it was too little, too late: the police were on their way,” the case study reads.

Prof. Craig contrasts this account with the police report, also on Mr. Penney’s website, which says the accused lied about being a plumber looking for the source of a water leak before rubbing up against the victim and then undoing his pants to expose his penis.

In an e-mail, Mr. Penney defended his website, acknowledging he uses “levity in my case studies” and accusing Prof. Craig of cherry-picking from his material.

“The information on my websites exists as a resource for people who have been charged with a criminal offence,” he said. “It should not come as a surprise that that information does not appeal to everyone.”

A Law Society of Upper Canada spokesman, Roy Thomas, said the self-regulating body was aware of the paper but had not launched any investigations or received any complaints related to advertising by defence lawyers who specialize in sexual assaults. While very few probes have been prompted by lawyer advertising, Mr. Thomas said the regulator had launched discipline cases in the past over the issue.

Anthony Moustacalis, a veteran Toronto defence lawyer and president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, agreed some of the advertising mentioned in the study could be offside.

But Mr. Moustacalis, who has a website for his own practice, said some lawyers who became aware of Prof. Craig’s paper as it circulated via Twitter over the past month have already “fine-tuned” their websites: “I think [lawyers] have to be mindful that sometimes their thoughts don’t translate well in writing. And you have to be vigorous that what it is that you are saying is clear, and isn’t obtuse or obscene.”

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