Lawyers battle over letters to parents of shoplifters

A B.C. lawyer who called an Ontario counterpart a “sleazy operator” and accused him of being involved in a scam for sending demand letters to the parents of alleged shoplifters has been found guilty of professional misconduct by the Law Society of British Columbia.

Gerry Laarakker, who runs his own firm in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, admitted to writing a fax to Toronto lawyer Patrick Martin as well as an Internet posting about him that the law society alleged contained “discourteous and personal remarks” after a client received a $500 demand letter. Martin had been acting on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Martin’s letter warned Laarakker’s client she could face an even bigger claim for damages if she didn’t pay the settlement amount.

At the same time, Martin had instructions to file a civil claim against her for the actual recovery costs incurred by the retailer due to the alleged shoplifting incident involving her teenage daughter.

The letter explained that recovery costs are those related to the detection, apprehension, recovery of goods, and damages associated with shoplifting. It also claims that future incidents decline when retailers pursue offenders.

Laarakker argued before the B.C. law society hearing panel that his comments were justified on the basis that he was dealing with what he called a “rogue lawyer.”

But that explanation wasn’t good enough for the regulator. “Even if the Ontario lawyer can be considered to be a ‘rogue,’ it is not the respondent’s place to pursue some form of vigilante justice against that lawyer by posting intemperate personal remarks or by writing letters that do not promote any possibility of resolution of the client’s legal dispute,” reads the panel’s decision.

“The appropriate avenue for the respondent to take would have been to file a complaint either with the Law Society of Upper Canada or the Law Society of British Columbia. Obviously, the respondent did not take those steps. Thus, by taking actions that he felt were protecting the integrity of the profession, he was achieving the opposite result.”

After speaking with the client, Laarakker sent a fax to Martin advising him that the woman wouldn’t be paying the settlement amount.

“Suffice it to say that I have instructed her not to pay a penny and to put your insulting and frankly stupid letter to the only use for which it might be suitable, however uncomfortably,” Laarakker wrote, adding that he believed a civil judgment against his client was unlikely.

“I have notified the local paper of this scam. Save the postage in the future and become a real lawyer instead! You must have harboured dreams of being a good lawyer at one point.

Surely bullying people into paying some small amount of money is not what you went into law for. But then again, someone has to be at the bottom of the class.”

Two days earlier, Laarakker had also commented on a posting on the Canadian Money Advisor blog, where one user had noted a similar letter from Martin. Laarakker identified himself as a lawyer in his comment and said he doubted an action would ever be brought.

“This guy is the kind of lawyer that gives lawyers a bad name,” Laarakker wrote. “He is relying on intimidation and blackmail to get the lousy $500. Don’t pay him. I hate these sleazy operators.”
Both the fax and the Internet posting came to the law society’s attention after Martin complained about Laarakker’s behaviour.

Laarakker tells Law Times he regrets the way he went about expressing his feelings. “I was rude, and the language I used was awfully harsh,” he says. “It was undiplomatic language. I have apologized for that and I shouldn’t have done it.”

But he’s not backing down from his fight against the practice of targeting alleged shoplifters and their parents. He says he has heard from many people across the country who have received similar letters from Martin and other lawyers on behalf of a range of retailers.

“I think the particular pursuit in which he is engaging is a horrible one,” Laarakker says. “He’s intimidating average, normal people whose child may or may not have made a terrible mistake. We’re already perceived as money-grabbing, and something like this paints all of us lawyers with a very bad brush.”

Martin’s letter mentions an Ontario Divisional Court case in which a shoplifter was ordered to pay punitive damages, but Laarakker says the case is quoted out of context. He offers a complete defence service to B.C. residents who receive the demand letters for a flat fee of $100.

“They go nowhere,” he says. “Nothing happens. I’ve been a lawyer for many years and I’ve never heard of this even going to Small Claims Court. I feel the public is being unduly intimidated. I feel perhaps my friends in Ontario are wrapping themselves in their legal robes and taking advantage of the naive and the embarrassed.”

Laarakker says the demand letter struck a nerve with him because of a family member who once dealt with an eating disorder. Some studies have reported higher-than-average rates of shoplifting among those with eating disorders.

“It cut pretty close to the bone,” Laarakker says. “If anyone tried to criminalize her or pull this kind of trick on them, I don’t think I would have resorted just to a letter. In that kind of case, it targets a child who already has problems.”

Laarakker’s case is due to come back before the law society panel later this year to schedule a further hearing to decide on what penalty he should face.
Martin didn’t respond to an interview request.

The Bay, however, says it stands behind the practice of seeking recovery for shoplifting incidents.

“We are only one of many retailers in Canada who for the past 18 years use the civil recovery process in an effort to discourage shoplifting and offset some of the high security costs we incur as a result of these people who choose to steal from us,” the company’s legal department said in a statement last week.

“Patrick Martin is only one of many lawyers we have used over the years to assist us in our efforts to try and keep these thieves from repeating their crimes in our stores.”

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