The prominent Bay Street lawyer who acted for the geologist at the centre of the 1990s Bre-X Minerals gold scandal has been ordered to serve a two-month suspension for breaking his profession’s rules on civility during the acrimonious trial more than a decade ago.
Joe Groia, a former director of enforcement for the Ontario Securities Commission, was also ordered to pay nearly $250,000 in legal costs, in a ruling by a disciplinary panel of the Law Society of Upper Canada dated Thursday.
In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Groia vowed to appeal the ruling and have it put aside while he challenges it: “I will continue to fight this case for as long and as hard as I can possibly can even with the ruinous effect it has had on me, my firm and my family.”
In a drama closely watched by the legal profession, Mr. Groia has faced a lengthy battle with the regulator over his behaviour during the Bre-X trial. His actions in the courtroom were sharply criticized in appellate court rulings that cited his use of “sarcasm,” “invective,” “guerrilla theatre,” and his repeated attacks on the prosecution. He hired well-known litigator Earl Cherniak to defend him before the law society.
Mr. Groia has spoken scathingly about his profession’s “civility movement” and has painted the discipline proceedings as a worrying attack on the ability of all lawyers to mount vigorous defences in high-stakes cases. He has received support from prominent voices in the legal community, including former Conrad Black lawyer Edward Greenspan, who warned of a chill that could see defence lawyers second-guess tough arguments for fear they will be face discipline years later.
Mr. Groia has also pointed out that lawyers acting for the OSC in the Bre-X case used tough language with him.
But last June, a disciplinary panel found Mr. Groia had violated the profession’s rules for failing to treat the court with “courtesy and respect” by engaging in “pattern of rude, improper or disruptive conduct.” It also faulted him for communicating with OSC prosecutors “in a manner that was abusive, offensive or otherwise inconsistent with the proper tone of a professional communication from a lawyer.”
Thursday’s decision on his penalty comes after a November hearing where both sides argued over what sanctions Mr. Groia should face.
In its decision, the panel largely agreed with submissions from law society lawyers, who had argued that Mr. Groia deserved a two-to-four month suspension.
The panel cited what it said was Mr. Groia’s lack of remorse for his behaviour during the Bre-X trial, which the decision says “caused the case to implode” during the first 70 days and “undermined public confidence in the administration of justice.”
“Mr. Groia has not demonstrated any insight into the nature of his conduct, acceptance of any responsibility for his actions, or an understanding of the effect of his conduct on others,” reads the decision, written by law society panel member Susan McGrath.
The trial of Bre-X geologist John Felderhof on alleged securities law violations began in 2000. The Bre-X scandal erupted in the mid-1990s after it emerged that promising gold samples from a site in Indonesia had been faked. Despite the criticism of Mr. Groia’s behaviour in the trial by judges of the Ontario Superior Court and Ontario Court of Appeal, Mr. Felderhof was acquitted in 2007. No one, except now for Mr. Groia, has faced any sentence or penalty in the wake of the scandal, which saw investors lose billions and shook Bay Street.
Thursday’s law society ruling also denies a request by Mr. Groia to release documents pertaining to a settlement offer made to Mr. Groia before the discipline hearing began. The ruling says such negotiations are generally kept secret unless there is a “compelling or overriding interest of justice.”
The Criminal Lawyers' Association, which intervened in Mr. Groia's hearing, said it "deplores" the law society' decision.
“We are most concerned about the potential chilling effect upon defence counsel who day in and day out perform their professional duty fearlessly advocating for their clients," the association's president, Norm Boxall, said in a statement.
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