The northern B.C. community of Fort Nelson – population 3,900 – could be left without a lawyer after the only one in town was suspended by the Law Society of B.C. for four months for dishonesty.
The Society noted in a recent ruling that its decision against Nathan Bauder, "the only lawyer in town," could cause some hardship. "The public, including the citizens of Fort Nelson, need to be assured that they are protected from unscrupulous conduct, even if this results in the loss to them, temporarily, of their only local legal representation," the disciplinary panel concluded.
Mr. Bauder, who had political aspirations, will begin his suspension on July 27 and must pay a $10,000 penalty for falsifying his own mortgage documents by inflating the value of his home. Now 38, Mr. Bauder offered no excuse for his actions and admitted he was "the author of his own misfortune."
There has been other fallout: At least one bank now won't do mortgage business with him. He has lost friends, has been shunned by the legal community outside of Fort Nelson and has absented himself from community and provincial boards, the law society noted.
The Law Society heard how Mr. Bauder, a member of the Okanagan First Nation, grew up in Quesnel, put himself through Capilano University as a chainsaw salesman, attended the Northern Lights College satellite campus in Fort Nelson and the University of British Columbia law school, where he graduated in 2001.
He articled with a Prince George law firm before becoming a lawyer in 2002. He practised three years in Prince George before heeding the advice of an older lawyer to "head north" to Fort Nelson, which was booming from the oil and gas industry, but didn't have a lawyer.
The panel heard Mr. Bauder was overwhelmed when he moved to Fort Nelson in 2005. As the only lawyer in town, he was "shellshocked" by the number of cases coming his way – criminal, divorce, real estate and corporate transactions. In the area of real estate alone, he was handling up to 40 conveyances a month. Millions of dollars flowed through his trust account each year. And he was even handling the corporate work of companies owned by Fort Nelson's mayor, the disciplinary panel heard.
After three whirlwind years, the stress and pressure began taking its toll on his life.
Although there is a provincial and Supreme court registry in Fort Nelson and limited provincial court sittings, most of his work was in the courts of Fort St. John, about a four-hour drive, and Dawson Creek, which is five hours away.
Mr. Bauder's four-year marriage broke down in 2008. He sold the family home in Fort Nelson and rented a basement suite. He felt that it would be a prudent business move to purchase a home in Prince George, where he thought of relocating his practice.
Mr. Bauder ran afoul of the law society when he inflated the value of a property he was going to buy in an effort to gain financing. He prepared a false purchase contract with an increased purchase price and had the seller initial and sign the false document. In a hearing before the Law Society, Mr. Bauder acknowledged he knew it was "dishonest."
But he has continued to serve hundreds of people since his misconduct, which he maintains won't happen again.
Mr. Bauder recently told the Fort Nelson News that he "exercised very poor judgment and acted dishonestly in a personal property transaction, unrelated to any client. As a professional, like any doctor, accountant, engineer or police officer, I am held to a higher standard as part of my oath as a public officer. I failed to do so in this instance. I apologize and I am worthy of sanction. Arrangements will be in place to ensure my practice continues with the least disruption possible."
At least one of his clients, the mayor of Fort Nelson, continues to support him, the Law Society noted in its decision. And the main real estate agent in Fort Nelson, who handles the majority of house sales, told the Law Society: "Nathan has been a pillar in our community outside of his practice as well. In most professions, mistakes are made and disciplines are handed down. I hope and ask that you allow Nathan to continue to practise as our community very much needs him."