Ex-adjudicator fights to keep law licence despite 2010 conviction

A former immigration adjudicator who has served his time for breach of trust says he’s willing to accept any sanctions or restrictions imposed by the Law Society Tribunal if it’s willing to allow him to continue to practise law.

The panel reserved its decision on Steve Ellis’ penalty following a two-day hearing on Oct. 22 and 23. Among the considerations will be the egregiousness of his actions as a refugee claims adjudicator versus the mitigating factors of a bipolar disorder and hypomania he suffers from.

Ellis, 56, has completed the prison sentence handed down at trial in April 2010 after the court found him guilty of breach of trust and agreeing to accept a benefit.
He had been caught on videotape in 2006 attempting to pressure a 25-year-old South Korean refugee claimant into having a sexual relationship with him in return for a favourable ruling through his role as an adjudicator in her case. Last month, he appeared before the tribunal to defend his desire to practise law again as Law Society of Upper Canada prosecutor Lisa Freeman insisted his “egregious” and “calculated” actions in his role as an adjudicator required revocation of his licence or, failing that, permission to surrender it.

“I was extremely troubled,” Ellis told the tribunal in reference to his mindset at the time of his offences.

“My judgment was so blurred. It just makes no sense to me now what I was thinking at the time. I wasn’t in the state of NCR [not criminally responsible] but I couldn’t understand the consequences and I didn’t appreciate in my thought process how wrong it was.”

Ellis and his defence counsel, James Camp, argued the lawyer, who served on Toronto city council first in 1991 for Ward 9 and won re-election in 1994 before losing in 1997, was a man who was “spinning out of control” due to his intense work schedule, inability to sleep, and overall drive to succeed while suffering from a bipolar disorder and chaotic bouts of hypomania. The government first appointed him to the refugee protection division in 2000 and reappointed him every two years until his removal in 2006 following the criminal charges.

Ellis told the panel last month that in the time leading up to his offences, he was only getting a few hours of sleep each night and was suffering from nightmares as he tried to lay the groundwork for a political career he hoped would lead to the mayor’s seat and worked to be the most effective and productive refugee claim adjudicator in the country. Two separate investigations of each refugee file Ellis had worked on found no other wrongdoing or breaches of his position.

“Looking back, I can see I was ill for a long time,” he said, adding he was having an affair that was taking an emotional toll on him and was generally acting in a very impulsive way. “I felt I had to be the No. 1 producer in Canada. I thought I could help people and make a difference in their lives. But I was constantly revved up. I was constantly in a whirlwind.”

Ellis told the tribunal he’s very remorseful and noted he had sought medical help in 2006, shortly after the offence but before the charges, to deal with his impulsiveness, self-destructiveness, depression, and agitation. That led to his eventual diagnosis before the 2010 trial. At the trial, the prosecution sought a three-year jail term, but the trial judge found Ellis’

psychiatric and medical condition to be a mitigating factor and handed him an 18-month term.

At the tribunal last month, however, Freeman argued that as Ellis had at first pleaded not guilty to the original charges and later appealed the trial judge’s ruling, he hadn’t demonstrated full remorse for his actions and suggested the diagnosis of his illness was “weak” at best. She said his actions leading up to the videotaped coffee shop meeting where he offered his deal to the refugee claimant were calculated and not as impulsive as suggested by the defence.

“We know he has always been highly functioning and effective,” Freeman told the panel. “It’s an extremely subjective diagnosis. His actions could simply be attributed to those of a person just behaving badly.”

Freeman also referred to the egregiousness of his actions. “Mr. Ellis literally held her life in his hands and took advantage of his position as adjudicator,” she said.

“Until very recently, he hasn’t been able to acknowledge what he’s done.”

Ellis countered that while his actions were “terrible,” he wasn’t using his position as a lawyer in any sense and noted that being a lawyer wasn’t a requirement to sit as an adjudicator.

“It was wrong. I admit that fully, but it was not in any way in the capacity of being a lawyer,” said Ellis, who admitted to professional misconduct and/or conduct unbecoming a licensee. “It was wrong, but it wasn’t as a lawyer.”

Camp asked the panel to allow Ellis to practise, suggesting he’s willing to accept rulings on costs and any restrictions placed upon him.

Ellis said he understands the law society would likely never allow him to continue as a sole practitioner and noted he has at least two Toronto-based law firms willing to take him on and supervise him if he’s able to practise.

Ellis also told the panel he’d be willing to accept not serving female clients and asked it to consider a suspension of up to a year as a punishment and costs below the $7,000 the prosecution had requested along with revocation.

He also noted that except for a short stretch in 2008, he has been unable to practise law because of the stigma of his charges and the pending trial and has been unable to find other permanent employment.

“The public, when it assesses how the profession is regulating itself, wants to see us respectfully balance the rule of law by also respecting the responsibility of accommodating those who suffer with illness, especially when the person has taken great steps to seek help and to admit to his wrongs,” Camp told the panel.

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