Harry Kopyto faced off against his old nemesis, the Law Society of Upper Canada, last week in an appearance before a third separate hearing panel in his attempt to be licensed as a paralegal.
More than 20 years after the activist lawyer was disbarred, Kopyto needs to show the regulator he has the good character necessary to be grandfathered as a paralegal and continue the practice he started after his career as a lawyer came to an end.
Kopyto plans to use the hearing to mount a challenge to the law society’s jurisdiction to regulate paralegals, arguing it violates the Constitution and federal competition laws.
That has bogged down progress as the law society struggles to deal with Kopyto’s wide-ranging requests for disclosure related to his own case and the decision-making process that ended with the law society’s takeover of paralegal regulation in May 2007.
Kopyto was disbarred in 1989 for overbilling Ontario’s legal aid plan by $150,000. He admits his billing practices were deficient but maintains he never got any more money than he was due from legal aid.
“I’ve got my own story to tell,” he says. “If you’re Harry Kopyto, there’s kind of a perception of who you are, what your past has been, and what your character is like that I don’t think is consonant with reality.”
Kopyto claims the law society has damaged access to justice by cutting off practices like his own and limiting the scope of paralegals who had years of experience. “It actually restricted access to justice by giving lawyers a monopoly for legal services and legal advice and eliminating the more affordable competition, the paralegals,” he says.
“They claim they took over because paralegals were committing criminal acts and were incompetent. I want to see that evidence but I don’t think it exists. It was no worse with paralegals than it was with lawyers. The real reason they did it was to advance their own economic agenda.”
The fight, he adds, is one he’s prepared to take all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The law society has turned to two non-benchers in the most recent iteration of its hearing panel. Margot Blight, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, chairs the panel, while Michelle Tamlin, a licensed paralegal from Whitby, Ont., was also appointed from outside Convocation.
They will sit with lay Bencher Baljit Sikand. The move follows the dissolution of two previous panels in the wake of repeated accusations of bias by Kopyto.
Kopyto received his notice of hearing in June 2009. The first panel was formed in late 2009 to hear a motion from Kopyto seeking directions on disclosure by the law society.
Kopyto asked panel member Paul Dray to recuse himself because some of the correspondence he wanted access to actually involved Dray in his roles as president of the Professional Paralegal Association of Ontario and chairman of the law society’s paralegal standing committee during discussions about the LSUC’s takeover of paralegal regulation.
Dray refused to resign, and the panel was dissolved after Kopyto abandoned his motion. Kopyto also complained to the law society about panel chairman Carl Fleck, whom he alleged had violated his neutrality by communicating with the law society’s prosecution team without Kopyto’s knowledge.
A second panel was appointed in December 2010. Chaired by Judith Potter, it fell apart after she agreed to recuse herself last month. Kopyto had raised concerns about her campaign for election as a bencher, in which she committed to halt the “encroachment” by paralegals into areas of law best served by small-firm lawyers.
According to LSUC spokeswoman Susan Tonkin, Convocation began allowing non-benchers to serve on panels in 2007, appointing four lawyers and four non-lawyers to the pool “in order to assist in scheduling.”
Kopyto had no bias concerns about the new panel but he did register his concern about the way they were selected in which the law society identified him as the subject when inquiring about the availability of eligible panel members.
“To have a judge say, ‘Yes, I want to sit on Kopyto’s case,’ it’s not the ordinary practice in judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings,” he told the hearing.
Kopyto argued the panel should adopt a low threshold when considering his request for disclosure because of the serious consequences for him should he fail in his bid for a licence.
“The law society has characterized my requests as a fishing expedition,” he told the panel. “There’s no expectation on me to know everything they have. If there’s fish in the water, why can’t I go fishing? It’s important to me to have the ammunition to fight back.”
Kopyto also wants the onus reversed in his case to force the law society to prove that he’s not of good character. Although he applied to be grandfathered, he says the transition to LSUC regulation meant there was an element of compulsion that thereby places the burden of proof on the law society. “I only signed the application because I had a gun to my head,” Kopyto said.
More than 20 Kopyto supporters braved the inclement weather to pack the law society’s second-floor hearing room last week. One of them, Dalius Butrimas, met Kopyto several years ago when he represented his son in a case against a local hockey association. Butrimas’ son alleged his coaches had bullied him. The case eventually settled after a couple of years in the Small Claims Court.
“No lawyer wanted to touch that,” Butrimas says. “There’s no money involved, and it looks very trivial. But it wasn’t trivial for my son. Harry was there when I needed him and nobody else was there to support me, and this is my way of reciprocating and to say, ‘Thank you and now I’m going to be here for you.’”
The hearing is set to resume on Feb. 24.
“I’ve got a fighting chance to come out of this and continue what I’ve been doing for the last 35 years, which is fighting for the rights of women, of minorities, of those without power and influence against those who have power and influence,” Kopyto says.
For more on this story, see "Disbarred lawyer challenges LSUC."