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Lawyers suffering violence alone

|Written By Michael McKiernan

The profession must do more to help lawyers who suffer routine threats and intimidation in silence, says a criminologist who specializes in the issue.

A vandal sprayed graffiti on the offices of Greenspon Brown & Associates in Ottawa. Police charged a 53-year-old Ottawa man following the incident, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Photo: Mike Carroccetto/Ottawa Citizen.

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"

  • Sad

    This can happen in the uS but is less common.
    I blame on the prolong system that the Att General has set up. they alone have decided to make things long hard and difficult. If laws not by laws from the LSUC were on the book for the regulation of lawyers as NY Calif and most US states have this would be less of an issue. Clear legal guidelines need to be establsihed. Oh when lawyers lie and many seem to like to do this and charge by how much a person makes then that is a biased system.
  • Family Law Lawyer

    Susan Lynham
    I am not sure how the suggestion by Karen Brown that "The profession must do more to help lawyers who suffer routine threats and intimidation in silence" could or even would be implemented. We, in Alberta, have the Assist program to deal with all kinds of issues arising from the practice of law. I would think that the trauma of being threatened would be one of them.

    The reality is that the people who generally make threats to lawyers, and these mainly arise in the very personal areas of the law, criminal and family law, are either mentally ill or unable to come to grips with the outcome of their court cases, which may be a form of mental illness in and of itself.

    Being threatened by the irate soon-to-be former spouse and sometimes even the family of that person is the rule and not the exception. In over 25 years of practising family law, I am unaware of any of my colleagues who have not been threatened in one way or another.

    Why do family law practitioners not report? We have seen the short shrift the police make of the complaints of our clients who are also often being threatened by the same people. The police in the city in which I practice, will rarely, if ever, respond to a domestic violence call without a restraining order in place, unless the neighbours are complaining about the noise.

    We also know that the law's ability to deal with those who are mentally ill is often non-existent until they are charged criminally. Additionally, many of the mentally ill do not agree that they are, so treatment options in a medical setting that requires consent to treatment are completely unavailable.

    Family law lawyers generally know each other quite well, as even in larger centres, you are dealing with the same people over the years. I have been lucky enough to have had a "support" group throughout the time I have been practising. Threats from the temporarily or otherwise insane come with the territory and we just deal with them as we do with all of the other difficult areas of this practice. We talk to those who do the same thing day in and day out. We all have basic safeguards built in such as unlisted home telephone numbers, cell phones with one button 911 assistance and the like.

    Many of us have had to have the police remove these people from our offices at one time or another. Sometimes phones have been tapped to get the evidence needed for a criminal charge however, there are very few of the threats that require this level of intervention. The consensus seems to be that during a divorce or custody battle, people often act in ways that they would never consider acting in regular times so the threats that are made are unlikely to be acted upon.

    If the "group" considers the threat to be real, recognising that our clients are far more likely to be harmed than we are, no one just phones the police. Most of us either know Crowns personally or know how to reach a Crown and the request for assistance is generally made through that office.

    I have had friends who have changed practice areas because of the difficulties inherent in a family law practice including being threatened. To me, this is an area that the profession is already doing something about in the front line trenches. I am not sure that anyone who didn't practice criminal or family law could understand what threats do to the individual however, I see very few who stay in these areas who don't have a "support" group of their own.

    Just in passing...if the poster "Ron" is really a lawyer, I sure wouldn't want him acting on my behalf. If one is going to quote the words of some other person as a preface to their own remarks, one should really try to get the spelling of the quoted person's name correct. The diatribe goes downhill from there grammatically and otherwise. Given how much our profession relies on the printed word, one would think that we should be masters of that craft.
  • Silence Is Not An Option

    Shakespeare wrote in Julius Ceasor "Fault lies not with our stars....but with ourselves that we are underlings."

    It's time for lawyers to ask Law Society some hard questions and demand question.

    We must ask the writers of our fortunes why are we the most hated community in Canada.

    We must ask too, what is the very first duty of the regulator of any profession. Surily it is the protection of public interest first as the end result of that the protection of the interest of the society as a whole.

    We must ask why crime of inventing PRO BONO succeeded instead of mending profession - unequal/unfair representation is unconstitutional charter sec. 24(1) says.

    We must ask why not one, just one, treasurer and CEO has been exposed and locked up so that game of greed and poisoning is not played any more.

    It is vital for new lawyers to gain respect and be leaders of your communitie and professions. Nation building is sacrifice not the work of parasites.

    May I say Brethren, sort out the weakness among ourselves first or we will need BODY GUARDS to commute between home and office and office and home (every day)
  • Law Student, Former Police Officer

    Simon Borys
    I thought this was an excellent article as well. I never realized that this was such a pervasive issue. I can't recall ever hearing about a report from a lawyer during my time on the job, so if this is occurring as frequently as the article suggests, lawyers are definitely suffering in silence.

    As a former police officer, I can say that the police have no protocol in place to deal with situations involving lawyers any differently or more swiftly than situations involving anyone else. It seems perhaps that's due to ignorance of the issue. I've certainly never heard of anyone advocating on behalf of lawyers who are victims to the police. However, other groups who have advocates (such as victims of domestic violence) tend to get their issues brought to the forefront.

    I wonder if lawyers could be classified as an identifiable minority group for the purpose of having cases like the ones described above investigated as hate crimes. That would bump up the level of response. In the service I worked for, a hate crime designation meant it automatically went to a detective for a thorough investigation, as opposed to a patrol officer.
  • Lawyer

    Martin D. Fineberg
    I agree with the article's message and as well the editorial that appears elsewhere. I know of lawyers who have been threatened. They are invlolved in family law files and it seems that those courts are more dangerous than even the criminal or civil courts. I have experienced two (2) serious threats stemming from contentious civil matters that involved large sums of money. One was in writing and the police "lost" the original threat. It was a horrible experience and caused me to go about the business of trying to obtain a firearm for protection. I would have had to have broken the law to do and so I merely lived in fear, as did my family and client. The person that issued the threat was well known for violence by police. They did zero to assist. Anyway, that was long time ago. Hoping the end result of all the "discussion", is that police develop a policy that enables personel to quickly react to compplaints that may be received from a lawyer and to take those complaints seriously.
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