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Ex-teacher who slept with student now seeks bar entry

|Written By Michael McKiernan

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.

  • CH
    Application denied.
  • JJ
    Appeal succeeds:
    James Maurice Melnick of the City of London, appealed from the Decision and Order of the hearing panel dated November 19, 2012, seeking an order setting aside that Decision and Order and granting his application for a Class L1 licence.

    By Order dated July 29, 2013, the appeal panel ordered as follows:

    The appeal is allowed. The Decision and Order of the hearing panel is set aside and the appellant is granted a Class L1 licence.

    Should the Appellant seek costs on appeal, he may serve and file brief written submissions within 21 days of release of the reasons in this matter. The Society may serve and file responding submissions within 14 days thereafter.

    (Counsel for the Society, Susan Heakes and Loretta Arci / Counsel for the Appellant, Tiffany D. Soucy)
  • Cate
    No one has addressed the PROBABILITY that James took a lawyers advice to plea guilty. Why would he do that after fighting for 2 years at great cost to have the truth exposed. The courts are never about finding the whole truth. James can never go back on his plea so he must work within the fictitious parameters that the courts have documented. We are all aware of willful children, not so innocent, addicted, acting out, promiscuous at ages younger than this alleged victim. What do we know about her history, did she and her family ever lay similar charges prior to those against James? Where were her guardians when all this was going on for 2 years? We fail to acknowledge that the courts create fiction every day due to plea bargaining with constraints on; all the facts, all the witnesses and all the history of both the alleged victim and so called perpetrator. This panel unfortunately must consider Jame's future based on the fiction of this case on James plea to accept all responsibility.
  • John
    Lets be clear and I hope the people posting did some research. Melnick signed the agreed statement of facts, its pretty clear he knew what he was doing and tried to lie to the police. Do you really believe he has acted as a professional and deserves a second chance? They don't just hand out the title "Sex Offender" to anyone. The teachers association acted properly by not concealing his name from speaking about the case as well. Poor guy, I don't think he is the one we should feel sorry for here.
  • Carol-ann
    I think that anyone can make a mistake, even a grievous one such as Jayme has done but at some point, we have to let him move on with his life. He made a mistake, he paid the price but most importantly, he has never repeated it and there is no evidence that he did it previously. Imagine if all of us were held so publicly accountable for some of of the skeletons in our closet. The people closest to him speak highly of him and accept him for who he is today. Give the man some credit for learnng his lesson!!!!!
  • Kathy
    I hope that Jayme can move beyond his past, but even health professionals sometimes get it wrong when they declare that a client is fully rehabilitated, as in the case of Russell Williams: I wonder if long term monitoring around minors might be a reasonable step.
  • Keith
    I think Mike may have misunderstood the point that Anonymous was making. Anonymous is opposed to a child molester being accepted into the bar. However, Mike doesn't seem to have a problem with same so long as the guy is competent.
  • Anonymous
    One can only hope that the LSUC does not lose sight of what has to be the single most important factor in this application. Namely, that Melnick was, at the time of the offences, a 30 year-old man who sexually exploited a 14 year-old CHILD. An "aberration"?A "boundary issue"? If she was an adult student, perhaps. But let's call a spade a spade - this was nothing less than a grown man taking advantage of an impressionable child for his own ends. Who knows how long it would have continued if he hadn't been charged by police (to whom he initially "lied fulsomely")? If his glowing references from teachers and colleagues somehow sway the LSUC into deciding that Melnick is of now of sufficent "good character" for admission to the bar, it makes the entire process something of a joke. The most serious criminal backgrounds would pale in comparison to being a good student and a savvy co-worker. And I, for one, think that crimes against children should be viewed very seriously.
  • Mike
    I think Anonymous hits the nail on the head. The "good character" requirement is a bitsilly, a tad arbitrary and lends itself to debates about optics rather over substance. The chief concern should be competence as assessed by a qualified articling principal and administered by LSUC. Reviewing the material above, I wonder what more this person could have done or could be doing to clear his name.
  • Regulus de Leo
    Lucky guy.

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