Is this church a law firm?

The Ontario Superior Court has issued an injunction against a pastor and convicted fraud artist for offering unregulated legal services from a church in Hamilton, Ont., to local residents.

Gideon McGuire Augier provided legal services while claiming to be a lawyer despite having no legal education, Superior Court Justice Robert Goldstein found in Law Society of Upper Canada v. Augier last month.

The judge determined Augier, a pastor, had been operating McGuire Law Corp. inside the Abba Uno Center, a community church and addiction recovery centre for local residents. The organization is in a former factory at 53 Gibson Ave. in Hamilton’s industrial east end.

“The respondent’s own correspondence and the McGuire Law Corp. web site contradict the assertion that he only assists congregants as a clergyman, and that his actions are directed towards the spiritual health of individual members of his congregation,” wrote Goldstein. “The evidence is crystal clear that he has been practising law for profit.”

In his ruling, Goldstein permanently forbade Augier from “practising law or holding himself out to be a lawyer or a paralegal” and ordered him to pay the LSUC $15,000 in costs.

“The law society has an important role in protecting the public from the activities of unlicensed and unregulated persons holding themselves out to be lawyers and paralegals,” said Goldstein, who noted Augier didn’t have to carry professional liability insurance, keep books and records for inspection by the law society or maintain a trust account for client funds.

According to the Hamilton Spectator, the courts have convicted Augier 11 times for fraud between the 1990s and 2001. A Spectator article noted Augier opened Abba Uno to seek “redemption” for the mistakes he made while struggling with a gambling addiction.

But Goldstein’s ruling isn’t the first time the courts have taken Augier to task for
misrepresenting his qualifications.

In a 2004 ruling in Protsko v. Angel Edward & Associates, the Superior Court found he had been assisting a client, Nadia Protsko, with an immigration matter along with a fellow defendant, Alexander Yusfin.

“There can be no doubt that the unsuspecting and particularly those not conversant with the English language would likely conclude, particularly from Mr. Augier’s business card, that he had legal qualifications: and may have been, indeed, a lawyer.

Mr. Augier’s targeted market were the relatively poor and vulnerable; as appears from evidence given by Mr. Yusfin,” wrote former justice Keith Hoilett.

For his part, Goldstein noted McGuire Law Corp.’s web site indicated Augier had experience negotiating an estates settlement and representing a client in divorce and immigration proceedings.

Augier’s legal practices came to the law society’s attention after it received a complaint from one of his former clients who had paid him a substantial amount of money to deal with her divorce proceedings.

According to the injunction ruling, Augier had the client, identified as Ms. Acacio, sign a direction giving him authority to act as her agent.

“There can be no doubt that the licensing regime is directed at people exactly like Mr. Augier: charlatans who take advantage of vulnerable people to enrich themselves,” said Goldstein, who noted the banner on Augier’s letterhead referred to “McGuire Law Corporation.”

However, Augier denied having control over McGuire Law Corp. Instead, he claimed he was the pastor of the Abba Uno church and was simply “ministering to his flock.” Augier said the church, meaning “one father” in Latin, is a non-profit organization that gets its funding through charitable donations.

In a 2010 letter to the City of Hamilton, Augier said the church had no government or grant funding. At the time, he was requesting that the city’s economic development committee “waive the building department fees for a change of use application and the addition of a roof storage area.”

According to the Spectator, Augier said he had raised about $1.5 million from private donors over the years as “gifts” from people helping him get started.

Despite his claims that the funds went directly to McGuire Law Corp., Goldstein found Augier was charging clients an hourly rate for his legal services.

“Negotiating an estates matter and representing a client in a divorce proceeding are classic examples of practising law,” wrote Goldstein, who noted Augier had written Acacio a letter demanding a further retainer to proceed with her divorce case. “The affidavit of Ms. Acacio makes it clear that she believed he was a lawyer.”

According to Julia Wilkes, a civil litigator who offered a legal opinion to the law society before it brought its application for an injunction, the court ruling is the “first step” in the process.

“In the event that the individual continues to provide legal services, they then can be held accountable for breaching a court order,” says Wilkes.

Although the Abba Uno and McGuire Law Corp. web sites are no longer in operation, Wilkes says the law society has no indication as to whether or not Augier is still providing legal services.
“At this point, we’re not certain whether or not he is or isn’t,” says Wilkes.

“But in the event that he does, now that this court order is out there, there are sanctions and disciplines in the future.”

In response to inquiries from Law Times, Augier’s assistant, J.T. McBane, responded on his behalf to note that the pastor is appealing the injunction.

According to law society spokesman Roy Thomas, the LSUC has brought 17 cases related to the unauthorized practice of law over the past three years.

Although the LSUC has the power to fine and order an unauthorized practitioner to stop posing as a lawyer or paralegal, Thomas says it does “not know definitively how many individuals commit this kind of fraud.”

However, it receives about 5,000 complaints a year about lawyers, paralegals, and others who engage in the unauthorized practice of law or provision of legal services.

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