Two former law students are continuing their fight with the Law Society of Upper Canada after it spurned their applications to become lawyers.
Ryan Manilla, who was denied a licence in September, returned to Osgoode Hall for an appeal on March 4 after the panel at his original hearing found he wasn’t of good character by a 2-1 majority.
Brent Burns, meanwhile, has vowed to appeal a panel’s order refusing to set aside his abandoned application. He claims his lawyer failed to explain the consequences of doing so. He has been battling to enter the profession over five criminal convictions.
The panel also criticized him for angry letters he wrote to the law society’s counsel.
Manilla, a high-flying law student tripped up by a bitter dispute with fellow members of his condo board, was at the appeal hearing with his wife, but neither he nor his lawyer Phil Downes would speak to Law Times about the matter.
“This appeal is not about whether the conduct engaged by Mr. Manilla was disgraceful and unacceptable,” Downes told the appeal panel, noting his client had repeatedly acknowledged his actions were out of line.
Instead, he argued the original panel’s reasons were inadequate because they isolated a key question but failed to answer it. “As a witness, he appeared to be forthright and convincing. But was he being merely manipulative?” the panel asked.
By denying his application, “They answered the question but without any reasons,” Downes said.
After graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School in the top 10 per cent of his class and with a prestigious international law award, Manilla moved on to the New York office of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP.
He returned to Canada and completed his abridged articles at criminal law firm Pinkofskys in April 2009. But by then his career was already in doubt as a result of the escalating battle at the condo board.
Manilla had been forced out of the president’s chair because of his opposition to a fee hike but won the position back after posting a notice in the lobby of the building purportedly from an off-site unit owner, Carinci Daria, accusing his fellow board members of taking kickbacks from the condo’s management company and developer.
Another was falsely accused of assaulting his wife.
Manilla also threatened to report some of the board members as drug smugglers to U.S. officials.
Authorities eventually charged Manilla with four counts of criminal harassment, although they were withdrawn in June 2009 when he agreed to sell his condo, apologize to the complainants for the false allegations, and attend anger management classes.
The panel at his good character hearing was encouraged by positive reports from doctors and therapists who praised Manilla’s progress but was troubled by his late admission just five days before the hearing that he had written the letter.
In responding to Downes’ criticisms of the original panel’s ruling, law society counsel Suzanne Jarvie said the onus was on Manilla to convince the panel he was of good character.
She argued the panel’s decision read as a whole gives adequate reasons for its finding that he hadn’t met that onus. “Could they have better reasons? I’m sure they could have been better. But are they inadequate? Absolutely not.
“What they’re saying is the passage of time is too brief, particularly in light of the fact he was still telling lies up to five days before the hearing. Whatever the rehabilitation process had done, it hadn’t done as much as he thought it had.”
Downes also presented new evidence to the appeal panel that included further character letters and details of Manilla’s volunteer work with Victim Services of York Region.
Downes told the panel members that if they believe the reasons were inadequate, they can consider the new evidence and make their own finding that he’s of good character without referring the matter for a new hearing.
“This is evidence of conduct that is somewhat remarkable and exceptional,” Downes said. “It’s a broad power you’re given. Why go through another hearing?”
The five-bencher appeal panel reserved judgment and will deliver a decision at a later date.
Burns’ problems also started with a good character hearing after he revealed in his application that he was convicted of five offences in 2002, including assault causing bodily harm, obstruction of a police officer, and impaired driving.
A notice of hearing was issued in April 2009, but by September of that year, Burns was struggling to raise the money for a lawyer. The lawyer appeared at a proceedings management conference assisting Burns as he filed a notice of abandonment of his application.
On Feb. 22, an LSUC panel refused his motion to have the notice set aside. According to the decision, Burns had second thoughts within days of signing his notice of abandonment as he claimed his lawyer, who isn’t named in the decision, had misled him about its ramifications.
Burns then launched a lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court that demanded that the law society set aside his notice of abandonment. He eventually agreed to withdraw the lawsuit in exchange for a hearing on his motion to set it aside.
Amanda Worley, who acted for the law society, told the panel Burns would be in no worse a situation regardless of whether it set aside his notice because he was free to apply again.
In either case, he’d still have to have his good character hearing and take the bar exam once again since the three-year limit on its applicability had passed.
During the proceedings, the panel saw e-mails from Burns to Worley in which he called her “a fraud.” In addition, he asked her, “What’s it like to sell your soul?”
“The panel found it difficult to comprehend how a law student seeking admission to be licensed could conduct himself in this manner,” panel chairman Carl Fleck wrote.
The panel also found there was no evidence for Burns’ assertions that his lawyer had misled him.
The panel dismissed his application without costs, but Burns tells Law Times he was upset by the whole process and intends to appeal.
“It was awful what happened,” he says. “The decision was clearly wrong.”
For more on this story, see "Manilla deserves 2nd chance with conditions" and "Law school star fights LSUC's good character ruling."