A former teacher barred from the profession following his conviction for luring and sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old student has told a Law Society of Upper Canada panel the episode was an “aberration” as he seeks to make his case that he has the good character necessary to become a lawyer in Ontario.
In 2006, James Melnick, now 35, was sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to two Criminal Code charges related to a sexual relationship with the girl. Melnick taught her in grades 7 and 8 and was her guidance counsellor during the second year.
After that, their relationship progressed from phone, e-mail, and instant message communication to a physical one that included kissing, oral sex, and sexual touching. Melnick was arrested in October 2004 after spending the night with the girl at a motel 50 kilometres from her home.
Melnick had to defer entry to law school at the University of Western Ontario so he could serve his jail sentence but has since completed his studies and is currently articling at a legal aid clinic associated with the university.
He told a law society panel last week that he has struggled to come to terms with his actions in the years since his arrest. “I like to put it in perspective by considering it an aberration.
It was a mistake, a very serous mistake, I made that hurt a very great number of people. I’m aware of it and I own it but I don’t consider it a part of my character,” Melnick said during testimony under examination by his lawyer, John Hill. “I feel awful and very remorseful for it. I wish I could undo it more than anything but I can’t.”
Melnick qualified as a teacher in 2001 and taught at a school in Parkhill, Ont., which is just outside London and near where he grew up.
He told the panel he became absorbed in work during a rough patch in his marriage and allowed the lines between his personal and private lives to blur.
“It became a social outlet, and I started to treat students far too much like friends,” he said.
Melnick and the girl exchanged more than 500 e-mails during the relationship and eventually began taking walks and trips together outside school.
Melnick called his actions even before the relationship became physical “reprehensible.”
“I allowed myself to float into a relationship, to take active steps towards forming a relationship with her under some misconception that it was above board,” he said.
“I fantasized she was closer to 20 or 22 than 14. Really, I was acting more like I was 16. I knew I was in a spot I shouldn’t have been in.”
Things came to a head on Oct. 23, 2006, when Melnick and the girl went on an overnight trip while her mother was out of town. The pair spent two weeks planning the trip, but on the day of it, Melnick said he got cold feet over fears they’d be caught.
In the end, the pair spent the night at a motel and returned to Melnick’s house the next morning to discover that police were looking for them.
During an interview with police that evening, Melnick said he was “very scared” and “lied fulsomely” by denying any sexual contact with the girl. It wasn’t until he saw his police charge sheet that “I knew I couldn’t get out of it,” he told the panel.
He then confessed everything to his wife and began seeing his family doctor, a specialist in helping people with “boundary issues.” Melnick has also attended sessions with a forensic psychiatrist as well as marriage counselling with his wife. The couple now has two young children.
In August 2006, a judge, describing the crime as “extremely disturbing and egregious,” handed Melnick a six-month jail term and a further 15-month conditional sentence. He’s also required to register as a sex offender until 2016.
A year later, the Ontario College of Teachers revoked Melnick’s licence, although he hadn’t taught since his arrest. The discipline committee called his actions “disgraceful, dishonest, unprofessional, and reprehensible.”
“The law society obviously shares these concerns,” said law society counsel Susan Heakes at the hearing.
“In addition to the abusive relationship with the 14-year-old former student, there was dishonesty with the victim’s mother, his wife, and the police. We’re talking about a relatively recent abuse of trust and power by the applicant.”
But Hill told the panel his client was a model student who had accepted his guilt and taken steps to tackle the issues that facilitated his “crossing of boundaries.”
For his part, Melnick said he has learned his lesson. “I’m hyper vigilant about the kind of relationship we, as professionals, should have and I’m less likely to err for having made a mistake with such terrible implications for so many people.”
Melnick started at Western in the fall of 2007. A parade of faculty came to Osgoode Hall to testify on his behalf over the two-day hearing.
Professor Erika Chamberlain, for example, taught Melnick several classes and took him on as a teaching assistant when he was in his second year.
She said she was surprised to hear about Melnick’s past when he disclosed it to her before she wrote him reference letters for articling positions.
“From an academic perspective, he was the top student in my legal research class, far and away. As a teaching assistant, he really went above and beyond what was expected.”
Melnick told Western’s former law dean, Ian Holloway, about his convictions early on in his studies. Holloway kept Melnick’s confidence and offered to speak to law firms about his situation during his search for articles.
“I came to have the highest regard for him as a student,” Holloway told the panel. “In terms of his leadership skills, he was above par. I would retain him.”
The panel also heard from a lawyer at Lerners LLP that while Melnick was high on its list of potential articling students, the firm was wary about investing resources in a lawyer who might not get licensed.
In the end, Melnick received a part-time articling position at the university’s Community Legal Services clinic. Margaret Capes, an adjunct professor who supervises him, said she has been impressed by his work.
The clinic restricts Melnick’s files to clients over 18. “I’ve been so impressed with him that we have developed a few programs that we are teaching together,” Capes said. “I have no hesitation exposing him to clients.”
The panel postponed Melnick’s cross-examination on July 6 after deciding it should see all of the exhibits filed at his criminal trial. Both sides have struggled to gain access to the exhibits, which include victim impact statements from both the girl and her mother.
The parties will meet by teleconference on July 15 to set dates to complete the cross-examination and hear closing arguments.