Ottawa lawyer Charlene Desrochers allegedly breached Law Society of Ontario conduct rules in her 2016 and 2017 tweets about the Cornwall courts, according to a Law Society of Ontario affidavit.
She also faces allegations of failing to co-operate with the Law Society’s investigation and failure to pay dues, and her licence is temporarily suspended as of Aug. 16.
Desrochers says her case is one of several recent cases that explore mental health concerns as a factor in the tribunal proceedings.
“I want people to know how the LSO abuses lawyers through the discipline process and that the discipline process makes lawyers sick both physically and mentally,” says Desrochers, a Fulbright scholar of Indigenous descent.
As of July 26, Desrochers had submitted nine notes from two medical providers, according to an affidavit from Anthony Gonsalves, a team manager at the enforcement department of the law society.
In the affidavit filed with the Law Society Tribunal’s hearing division, the regulator says that between October 2016 and early January 2017, Desrochers made various “uncivil and discourteous tweets” on her publicly accessible Twitter account, about “particular members of the Cornwall Judiciary and other levels of courts and/or the judges therein.”
The affidavit doesn’t list particular tweets, but Desrochers’ tweets from that time period include comments such as, “A Cornwall lawyer told me about the Cornwall judges railroading the other Indigenous lawyer by convicting his accused clients,” and “By attacking me via secret Law Society complaint, the Cornwall judges & Crown breached Black Accused’s right to counsel & fair hearing,” according to a search performed by Law Times in the last week of August on one of the two Twitter accounts associated with Desrochers’ name and photo.
“Lawyers have a right to freedom of speech just like every other Canadian, and . . . I have [the] right to defend human rights of Black and Indigenous people without retaliation by the LSO and the state,” says Desrochers.
Desrochers submitted five notes from nurse practitioner Manon Bouchard, Desrocher’s health-care provider since 2007, the affidavit said. The notes recommended leave from Law Society Tribunal matters as Desrochers recovered from surgery.
Gonsalves’ affidavit also cited four medical notes from Douglas Green, an Ottawa psychiatrist. In April, Green wrote that Desrochers was “incapable of participating” in the Law Society’s disciplinary process, and in May he wrote that Desrochers was also not able to work as a lawyer, the affidavit says.
Desrochers says her experience with the law society and the law society tribunal has revealed deficiencies with the lawyer disciplinary process in Ontario.
For example, Desrochers said that it is much harder to recover costs from the law society than from other courts.
Rule 25 of the Law Society Tribunal Rules provides that costs may only be awarded against the LSO where the law society caused costs to be incurred without reasonable cause or to be wasted by undue delay, negligence or other default.
Desrochers also said that she did not have enough time to prepare for her hearing on Aug. 16, which she was advised of on July 27, according to a document provided by the tribunal.
Matthew Wilton of Matthew Wilton & Associates Barristers in Toronto acted on a 2017 Tribunal case, Law Society of Upper Canada v. Cengarle 2017 ONLSTH 129, which dealt with when and how the law society must make disclosures to licensees in interim suspension motions. In that case, the tribunal said that the tribunal should generally hear interlocutory suspension motions within four weeks of filing.
Desrochers says she is in discussion with some other lawyers about launching a class action suit against the Law Society of Ontario benchers. Desrochers says the class action, which is in the preliminary stages and has not been brought as a statement of claim, would focus on the complaints process and tribunal.
A tribunal spokeswoman declined to comment on Desrochers’ suggestion of a class action, which was initially announced on Twitter.
A law society spokesman says the society doesn’t comment on active matters before the tribunal.
“The only way to hold the benchers accountable for misgovernance of the whole LSO and to make change to the LSO is by doing a class action,” Desrochers says. “The abuse of process on my case is unreal and the public should be aware of how the legal discipline process is administered like an Indian Residential School.”
Lawyer Daniel Naymark, who is not involved in the case with Desrochers, worked on a case before the tribunal earlier this year, Law Society of Ontario v. Burtt, 2018 ONLSTH 63, where the allegations of misconduct against a licensee were dismissed due to the law society’s duty to accommodate mental illness.
“Where there is a tension in a lawyer’s inability to respond to the law society or participate in tribunal processes and the lawyer’s medical condition [poses] an actual risk to the public, I expect you would see the law society coming down on the side of protecting the public,” Naymark says.
Editor's note: Story updated to clarify statement by Daniel Naymark.