The Law Society of Upper Canada has issued an eight-month suspension to a Hamilton, Ont. lawyer who admitted to providing heroin to a friend that later died from an overdose.
A law society hearing panel suspended Sarah Jackson for conduct “unbecoming a lawyer” when she acquired heroin for Ed Cieslik in 2013. She also admitted she had committed professional misconduct by failing to report a number of criminal charges to the law society that she was facing in 2012 and 2013.
She was charged with manslaughter in Cieslik’s death in 2013, but she was later acquitted after spending more than a year in custody.
“The penalty takes into account that Ms. Jackson spent considerable time in jail before being found not guilty,” David Wright wrote on behalf of the panel in Law Society of Upper Canada v. Jackson.
“As a result of her time in jail and undertaking she gave while the matter was proceeding through the criminal courts, she has been away from the practice of law for more than three years. Combined with that, the eight-month suspension provides significant general and specific deterrence,” wrote Wright.
Cieslik was a childhood friend that Jackson had met when she was 13 or 14 years old. The hearing panel’s decision said both Jackson and Cieslik had experience with non-prescription drugs.
Jackson had used heroin on a regular basis previously, but she had not done so for more than a year at the time Cieslik asked her if she knew where he could get the drug.
Cieslik had never tried heroin before, but he had asked Jackson several times if she could help him find some, according to the decision. She helped him buy half a gram of heroin in January 2013, but she suggested he should do a small amount.
She divided the half-gram into three doses for him and administered one of them.
Cieslik consumed the drug at Jackson’s house and later fell asleep. She did not notice until the next morning that he had died and she called 911. She was later charged with manslaughter.
At trial, a judge found that her actions constituted trafficking, but she was not charged with that offence. The judge acquitted her of the manslaughter charge as he determined that a final dose that Cieslik had administered on himself did away with any possible causal link between Jackson’s actions and his death.
The trial judge also found that Jackson was not guilty of criminal negligence causing death.
“These were tragic circumstances,” said John Dent, the lawyer representing Jackson in the law society proceedings.
“My client has co-operated with the law society throughout these proceedings and has accepted responsibility for her actions. She hopes to move forward now.”
Jackson, who was called to the bar in 2003, has not had an active licence since January 2013. She was listed as retired or not working until she was administratively suspended in August 2013. In 2014, she signed an undertaking that she would not practise while the law society’s disciplinary proceedings were underway.
The law society’s proceedings involved a joint submission by Dent and a lawyer representing the law society, where both parties agreed to the penalty.
The charges that Jackson failed to report to the law society included an impaired driving charge in 2012, as well as a cocaine possession charge that was dropped. The decision said she also failed to report a charge for not complying with a condition of a recognizance in 2013.
Under the law society’s By-Law 8, lawyers must let the regulator know about when they are charged with an indictable offence “as soon as reasonably practicable.”
Jackson was found to have engaged in conduct unbecoming a lawyer, as her actions had brought “discredit upon the legal profession.”
Following the suspension, which was retroactive to May 27, 2016, Jackson will not be able to resume practising law until a medical practitioner chosen by the law society assesses her. She will also have to provide evidence to the law society’s professional regulation division that she is capable of meeting her obligations as a lawyer.
Harvin Pitch, a lawyer who has represented lawyers in law society discipline matters, says he found the penalty surprising, as the law society has been very aggressive in penalizing lawyers in mortgage-related issues. He was not involved in the case.
Pitch says that lawyers who simply fail to see red flags when unknowingly dealing with fraudsters can easily lose their licence.
“As someone who has seen it from the commercial litigation side, I find it unusual that with these drug-related offences and the terrible and sad events caused or contributed by this lawyer that the lawyer wouldn’t have been disbarred,” he says.
“I can only conclude out of respect for the panel that there must have been extenuating circumstances that I’m not aware of because, certainly in the commercial area, there is harsher treatment.”
Toronto lawyer Lee Akazaki, who was not involved in the proceedings, says it is important to remember that at the centre of these proceedings was someone who was suffering, and that she would have to go through an assessment to prove she was capable of practising again.
“This is a case in which it’s deserving, I believe, a tremendous amount of compassion from both the legal profession and the public, because she has evidently suffered considerably, not the least of which is the loss of her childhood friend,” he says.
“It’s not so much a question of punishment but the steps that both she and the profession have to take in order to allow her to come back to practice.”
The hearing panel considered a number of other decisions in its analysis of how long the suspension should be.
One of the decisions it considered was Law Society of Upper Canada v. Li, in which a lawyer was convicted of smuggling drugs into jail for a prisoner. His licence was revoked, but the law society hearing panel determined the lawyer’s misuse of his position made that case much more serious.
Akazaki notes that the infractions in Jackson’s case arose from events that were part of her personal life rather than her legal practice. “I think the tribunal was correct in distinguishing these facts from others where there was a misuse of the lawyer’s position,” he says.
A spokeswoman for the law society said it is not the regulator’s policy to “interpret or comment on decisions made by the tribunal hearing panel.”