Lawyer vindicated as gov’t ordered to pay more for Wills’ defence

One of the government-funded lawyers who represented convicted killer and former cop Richard Wills says he feels exonerated by a Superior Court fee assessment ruling that found his legal tab in that case was reasonable and in fact ordered the government to pay him more.

The government called Napal’s invoice “excessive” and was hoping for reduced fees when it took him to task over his bill for defending Wills. The assessment officer, however, ordered the government to pay Raj Napal additional cash, saying some of the “unexplained” reductions it made from the lawyer’s invoice were unacceptable.

A jury found Wills guilty of first-degree murder in 2007 in the death of his lover, Linda Mariani. His defence saw “a revolving door of lawyers,” as Ontario ombudsman André Marin noted in a report that looked into the use of taxpayers’ funds in the case.

In that same report, Marin found much of the defence work in the case “appears to have been wasteful.”

A portion of the legal tab that tallied up to more than $1 million related to Napal’s fees and disbursements, which amounted to $345,205. Following Marin’s report, the Ministry of the Attorney General applied for an assessment hearing into the costs. According to Napal, it was the first time the ministry had called for an assessment hearing in a criminal case.

But in a decision dated Oct. 16, assessment officer George Argyropoulos found the accounts Napal rendered were “patently reasonable.”

“I have determined that the respondent solicitor’s accounts were patently fair and reasonable for the reasons stated above and I have assessed the respondent’s accounts in the amount of $369,699.53, for fees and disbursements,” wrote Argyropoulos. “The ministry having paid the respondent $345,205.23, I find there is owing to the respondent the amount of $24,494.30.”

The decision “exonerates me completely from the scandalous remarks made against me during the trial and after the trial by the press,” says Napal, who adds the criticism at the time was unfair and “really dug into me.”

Because of the fallout of that case, the Law Society of Upper Canada issued a notice of application against Napal in 2012 alleging he, among other things, assisted “his client to delay and prejudice the administration of justice.” That proceeding is still ongoing.

Since the controversy, Napal says he has also been excluded from the law society’s lawyer referral service and barred from taking on an articling student.

During the Wills trial, his articling student, Philip Viater, hired a childhood friend — a fashion photographer — to prepare a photo slide of the container Mariani’s remains were found in, according to Marin’s report. Viater billed for this activity, something Argyropoulos said Napal didn’t order and was the articling student’s “own frolic.”

Argyropoulos didn’t allow those costs to be paid by the taxpayer but said Napal isn’t expected to know his articling student’s every move.

“Clearly, Mr. Napal did not authorize or have any knowledge that Mr. Viater was involved in the production of the said photographs at Japan Camera,” the assessment officer wrote.

“It is impossible not only for Mr. Napal under these circumstances, but for any defence counsel to be able to supervise every action undertaken by a student-at-law during the course of a lengthy murder trial.”

Napal says he has suffered significant consequences from the public criticism.

“The impact has been substantial and it has caused me to lose work,” he says. “I am not getting the number of clients I used to get, and that’s why I’m so anxious to try and right the wrong with this particular judgment.”

It’s not right, says Napal, that he should have to answer to the ministry about his fees once its case management workers have approved and paid them.
“What’s the big case management team and exceptions committee there for?” he asks.

“They’re experts who know what kind of expenditures you’d have to make in a typical large criminal law case.”

Other than the amount his articling student charged for the photo slide, the assessment officer also docked Napal payment for two other items on his invoice: the time he spent discussing issues of his retainer with Wills and $16,000 in goods and services tax he had claimed.

Neither Napal nor the ministry seemed to realize at the time of the payment that government fees paid to lawyers are exempt from taxes. The assessment officer ordered those funds paid back to the provincial coffers. Napal says that fact “completely slipped my mind” at the time and it wasn’t a tactic to get more cash.

But still, Napal is walking away with more than he received initially because Argyropoulos found the government had cut some of the costs the lawyer had claimed without any explanation.

“Moreover, it is also disturbing that some of the respondent’s accounts were reduced without any explanation being provided to the respondent for the rationale behind the reductions,” wrote Argyropoulos.

The ministry refused to comment on the assessment officer’s findings but suggested they were in fact a reduction from the amount Napal initially billed. “The assessment officer reduced the billings of Mr. Napal from $411,476.10 to $369,699.53 (a reduction of $41,776.57),” wrote ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley in response to questions about the matter.

“The assessment officer ordered the Crown to pay $32,994.30 which represents costs, interest, and previous unpaid amounts.”

Crawley also noted the ministry’s actions involving the fees of another of Wills’ defence lawyers, Munyonzwe Hamalengwa. In an April decision, the assessment officer in that case reduced the billings of Hamalengwa to $591,526.06 from $769,642.74, said Crawley. Since Hamalengwa had received $677,604.18 on account, he must return $86,078.12 to the Crown, according to Crawley.

For more, see "Napal says he will fight Wills fee review to SCC."

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