The profession must do more to help lawyers who suffer routine threats and intimidation in silence, says a criminologist who specializes in the issue.
Karen Brown, a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, says the recent defacing of Ottawa defence lawyer Lawrence Greenspon’s office was an anomalous case only because it received press attention and was reported to the police.
According to Brown, lawyers rarely judge threats to be serious enough to go to the police, instead choosing to soldier on alone.
“It’s something that happens all the time,” she says. “There’s a lot of aggression and abuse, and the psychological impact of that abuse can be really detrimental. I don’t think they have anyone they can report this to and they should. The law society should survey its members, but I don’t think it’s something they’re looking at.”
Greenspon says his office became a target because he represents a client accused in the firebombing of a Royal Bank branch back in May. At first, he says, a man approached staff at the office while shouting abuse at them. “The disturbing part was that the behaviour started escalating,” Greenspon says.
The man began leaving notes that gradually became more threatening before Greenspon came in one morning late last month to find the office spray-painted with graffiti. Within 24 hours, police had arrested a suspect.
Greenspon has now added security features to his street-level office to prevent a repeat of the incident. Clients now have to be buzzed in by staff.
But it’s not the first time Greenspon’s choice of clients has earned him the wrath of the public. He acted for Momin Khawaja, the first person charged under Parliament’s anti-terrorism law, and also represented a woman accused of attempting to murder her unborn child. Recently, The Advocates’ Society honoured him for representing unpopular causes in court.
“I received some letters and e-mail which were less than flattering,” he says. “In any high-profile case, there’s a chance for that kind of thing to happen, but you have to block it out of your mind and do your job. In this case, it was difficult because it was affecting the people that work with me.”
In 2005, as part of her master’s thesis, Brown surveyed 1,200 lawyers working in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland about their experiences with threats and violence as a result of their work. She found 60 per cent of the lawyers surveyed had encountered some form of threat in their careers.
Only 23 per cent had sought police assistance as a result. For certain areas of practice, the problem was even more pervasive. Brown found 73 per cent of criminal defence lawyers, 82 per cent of prosecutors, and 87 per cent of family law lawyers had such experiences.
Since then, Brown has extended her research to include all provinces and territories in Canada and says the data reinforces the original findings. Not all lawyers are good at brushing off threats, and female lawyers are much more likely to suffer psychological trauma as a result, she notes.
According to Brown, governments have taken the lead to reduce the danger to lawyers by, for example, making the offices of Crown attorneys and judges hard to access and going to extreme lengths to ensure security in court. But Brown says members of the private bar have fewer options and less support.
The Ontario Bar Association has a personal safety handbook, first produced in 2005, that it distributes to lawyers throughout the province.
“What we try to explain to our members is that you don’t have to just suck it up and take this. You’re not expected to go out and get yourself killed,” says Ian Kirby, who was the OBA’s president when the handbook came out.
The book offers lawyers tips for assessing the credibility of a threat and on how to defuse potentially violent situations. Kirby himself has worked under a bomb threat from the ex-spouse of a client and recently warned his family about an unstable woman currently opposing him unrepresented in court.
“Most of us used to shrug it off and carry on,” he says. “You wouldn’t talk to anyone about it but once you start, you find this common experience. The message has to be it’s not acceptable to threaten violence or exact violence on lawyers and, if you do, don’t think you’ll get away with it.”
But Victoria Starr, who owns a family law practice in Toronto, suggests many lawyers still don’t share their stories. “It’s not something we talk about, and maybe that’s the first step,” she says. “We would learn that lots of us have been under that type of threat and be able to support each other.”
Starr’s practice focuses on domestic violence cases that “nobody else wants.” That means she frequently encounters men with violent histories. “Some of them are pretty psychotic, and when you read what they have done to their wives and children, it’s pretty scary,” she says.
According to Starr, low-level physical intimidation is routine from her clients’ spouses. Actual threats of violence are rarer. She once received a middle-of-the-night call from court staff to warn her that the angry spouse of a client had threatened to kill her and others involved in his case.
But even then, Starr didn’t report the incident to police because she feared it could prevent her from representing a client desperately in need of her help.
In the meantime, Starr has developed her own safety plan by minimizing her time alone and requesting a police escort from court when she suspects a situation could turn nasty. She tries to remember the words of a mentor, who told her, “It’s not you they’re after.”
“If I thought differently, I’d be too afraid,” Starr says. “Part of being a lawyer is being fearless. We might feel the fear but we push ahead, and it can put us at risk.”
At the same time, Brown says a lack of awareness about the problem means young practitioners fresh out of law school aren’t fully aware of what they’re about to face.
She also says law societies may have been able to ignore the root causes of the problem because many lawyers who haven’t encountered threats fail to understand the impact they can have.
“There’s a division between lawyers that concerns me,” she says. “Until everyone’s on the same page, they won’t do anything about it. You can’t just continue to lay the blame on people with mental-health issues. There has to be more to it, but nobody seems to be focusing on this.”
See this week's editorial "Time to address violence against lawyers"