Ex-teacher convicted of sexual offence with minor gets OK to practise law

A Law Society of Upper Canada appeal panel has set aside a ruling that denied a former teacher a licence to practise law in Ontario after finding he is now “of good character” and called the previous findings “unreasonable.”

The new ruling means a possible fresh start for James Melnick, who was convicted of sexually exploiting his former 14-year-old student. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to two charges involving sexual offences with a minor.

“If one sets aside the unreasonable findings, the evidence overwhelmingly supports a finding that the appellant is now of good character,” says the ruling.

The appeal panel found the hearing panel erred in finding that Melnick hadn’t gained real insight into his conduct and granted him a license to practise law.

“With respect, it cannot reasonably be said that the appellant had limited opportunity through his incarceration, counseling, and even during law school to reflect on his misconduct. All the evidence pointed in a different direction. The hearing panel’s finding in this regard was unreasonable,” wrote Bencher Janet Leiper for the five-member appeal panel.

The hearing panel also failed to rightly consider Melnick’s rehabilitation efforts, according to the appeal panel.

 “The evidence from family, friends, professors, employers, doctors and the appellant himself all supported a conclusion that his rehabilitative efforts were successful,” she wrote.

In July 2011, Melnick told the panel his offence was an episode of “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 a testimony.

“I feel awful and very remorseful for it. I wish I could undo it more than anything but I can’t.”

Still, a law society hearing panel decided last year Melnick doesn’t fulfill the good character requirement entry to the Ontario bar. Part of the reason for that conclusion was during his testimony, Melnick described himself as wanting to act as a “saviour” or a “white knight” to his students and their parents at the time of the offence, which could “permit an inference that he saw himself as not truly having done wrong,” the appeal panel found.

But put it into context, Melnick’s choice of words weren’t meant to suggest he didn’t do anything wrong, according to the latest ruling, which suggested the former teacher was describing how he began to cross boundaries based on what he learned in counselling.

A professional assessment of Melnick’s personality traits did reveal that he wants to help and nurture others, the ruling said.

“In the context of this professional opinion, it was not a stretch to use the metaphor of the ‘saviour’ or ‘white knight.’

“This aspect of his personality was the subject of hours of counseling and Dr. [Irene] Cohen concluded that the appellant had learned to set clear boundaries, to establish healthier relationships and to say ‘no’ when it is necessary.”

The appeal panel concluded: “In our view, the hearing panel misapprehended or failed to appreciate the totality of the evidence bearing on the appellant’s insight. On a correct appreciation of the totality of the evidence, its findings were unreasonable.”

Tiffany Soucy, Melnick’s lawyer, did not respond to Law Times’ requests for comment.

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