The Alberta Law Society is under fire for its dismissal of complaints against a prominent conservative journalist and non-practising lawyer over remarks he made on a television show and website and in a newspaper column.
Ezra Levant, an author and broadcaster with the now-defunct Sun News Network, faced nine charges of misconduct in October, 2012, after the law society's conduct committee referred those charges for a hearing. But the hearing never happened, and 16 months later Mr. Levant applied to a second conduct committee to dismiss the charges.
Mr. Levant, 43, said in an interview that he has been the subject of many complaints to the law society – "I've lost count, more than a dozen" – and all have been dismissed. "There are a number of complainants who have a political axe to grind and the law society found their complaints have no merit." He said he hasn't practised law in years.
The second committee held a meeting without notifying the two Ontario lawyers who had complained about Mr. Levant, and without the record of evidence that was before the first committee, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench said in a ruling this month. The committee heard from the law society's counsel and from Mr. Levant's lawyer, Robert Hawkes, each of whom cautioned that some charges might violate Mr. Levant's right to free speech, and that others lacked the evidence to convict.
And when the committee withdrew the charges, it did so with an "unsatisfactory and unclear" explanation, Justice Dawn Pentelechuk said.
The law society's handling of the complaints may have amounted to an abuse of process, she said. "It seems arguable that the process followed … is prone to undermine the integrity of the Law Society's disciplinary proceedings and the public's confidence in its ability to protect the public."
She ordered that a full hearing be held on the issue of whether the Alberta Law Society committed an abuse of process. University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran and Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman, who made the complaints against Mr. Levant, had asked for a court to review the law society's handling of their complaints. The law society had asked the court to dismiss that request.
The complaints against Mr. Levant date from as far back as 2010, but were treated as confidential under law society rules and came to light this month in the Alberta court ruling.
The Alberta Law Society's code of conduct requires courtesy from lawyers, whether they are practising law or not. "Lawyers should aspire to the highest standards of behaviour at all times and not just when acting as lawyers," the code says.
But law societies in Canada rarely discipline lawyers for conduct outside of the practice of law, except if a lawyer is convicted of a crime, according to Adam Dodek, who teaches at the University of Ottawa law school. "I am not familiar with any case in the last 20 years where a Law Society has sanctioned a lawyer for actions outside the practice of law."
Alison Taylor, the law society's communications manager, said it is not the society's practice to comment on matters that are in front of a court.
Prof. Attaran said the law society's "coddling" of Mr. Levant reminds him of justice in Third World countries. "You can't have a lawyer on national television hiding in a jurisdiction that refuses to discipline him and attacking lawyers elsewhere and undermining the dignity of this profession."
The nine charges sent by the first conduct committee for a hearing included bringing disrespect to the justice system, failing to maintain a civil level of discourse and harassment.