Refugee lawyers disciplined for failing to serve Roma clients

Two Toronto refugee lawyers face quite different outcomes from the Law Society of Upper Canada’s disciplinary tribunal for failing to serve their Roma clients.

Erzsebet Jaszi has had her licence to practise revoked, been ordered to pay $50,000 in investigation costs to the LSUC, and must reimburse Legal Aid Ontario more than $1,000 for overbilling services the tribunal ruled she did not provide.

Meanwhile, Viktor Serhey Hohots, who was deemed far more co-operative during the tribunal’s investigation, was suspended for five months after a joint submission for penalty, is restricted from practising refugee law for two years, must participate in a practice review upon his return, and has been ordered to pay $15,000 in costs.

In its ruling against self-represented Jaszi, the LSUC tribunal, chaired by Barbara Murchie and rounded out by Barbara Laskin and Margaret Leighton, took Jaszi to task for her failure to serve Roma clients making claims for refugee protection in Canada.

It ruled she had been “dishonest with clients, the Immigration Review Board, and LAO,” while also not indicating remorse, acceptance of responsibility, “or an appreciation of the impact of her misconduct on others.”

“Not only could she not be trusted to the ends of the earth, Ms. Jaszi could not be trusted at all,” it ruled.

The matter involved two applications the tribunal heard together. In both, the LSUC alleged that between 2009 and 2011, Jaszi didn’t properly serve a total of 10 clients, including nine Roma refugee claimants and their families who did not speak English or French.

Jaszi could not be reached for comment prior to press time.

She was found to have “acted without integrity” in several ways, including asking her clients to sign blank personal information forms, which she then filled out and submitted; she signed declarations stating she had translated the PIFs to her clients when she had not, and “billed LAO $1,026.77 for services she admitted she did not provide to her clients.”

“Ms. Jaszi also breached LAO’s trust that she would deliver honest accounts for services provided. LAO must accept a lawyer’s word that she worked the hours for which she claims, or the system would break down under the weight of scrutinizing counsels’ accounts,” the tribunal ruled. “Ms. Jaszi’s misconduct is extremely serious. It is the kind of conduct that sullies the reputation of the entire profession.”

Immigration lawyer and partner at Desloges Law Group Andrew Carvajal says the ruling recognizes that the “stakes of these cases are high and may well be the person’s life if forced to return to a place where they are in danger.

“Refugee claimants are particularly vulnerable applicants,” he adds. “Unlike economic applicants or professionals, they often have little to no English or French skills, are uneducated, could be elderly, and it is not uncommon that they have suffered traumatic experiences due to the persecution suffered in their home countries.”

He says dedicated counsel is vital in refugee claims, particularly when they do not speak the language and have faced harrowing hardships.

The investigation concluded her failure to diligently pursue applications and attend hearings resulted in four of her clients receiving notices of abandonment of their applications. In proceedings before the IRB, the tribunal found she missed filing dates, failed to respond to correspondence, and failed to attend hearings, leaving her clients unrepresented. It also ruled she failed to be co-operative with the complex investigation.

In her written submissions to the panel, Jaszi included a statement that she never lied or defrauded a client, nor did she lie to the IRB, although did state she made some mistakes in representing the claimants. She also wrote that her health had been declining in the past few years, which had affected her ability to serve her clients “with the same intensity as before.”

Jaszi had requested a five-month suspension and a two-year prohibition from practising refugee law as a more appropriate penalty than the one sought by LSUC’s counsel and similar to Hohots’ penalty.

Hohots, facing a tribunal chaired by Raj Anand with Philippe M. Capelle and Eric Whist, was found to have committed professional misconduct by abdicating his professional responsibilities for 18 sets of Roma clients over the course of 2009-13.

Hohots, who had been operating a very busy office, became overwhelmed with a workload of about 900 refugee clients, who with their families comprised 4,000 to 5,000 individuals. He admitted in the agreed statement of facts that he relied on a Hungarian interpreter to perform many of the essential duties, and the tribunal found he did not meet many of his clients, leaving the interpreter to act with little guidance in the preparation of PIFs.

“The agreed facts revealed that there were systemic failures in the operation of the office, which arose from the lawyer’s overall failure to assume professional responsibility for the functioning of his practice,” the tribunal ruled in its decision.

“As a result a large number of vulnerable clients received inadequate service. The vast majority of the proven particulars consisted of the lawyer’s failure to adequately prepare the PIFs of 18 clients – Additionally, the lawyer neglected to adequately prepare some of his clients for their refugee hearings. With respect to one client’s refugee hearing, the lawyer’s office failed to submit documentation in its possession that was material to the client’s claim.

“The lawyer completely abdicated his responsibility as a lawyer,” it ruled.

Refugee Lawyers Association board member and a past president Raoul Boulakia applauded the decision in Jaszi, saying the LSUC has finally recognized the seriousness of misconduct in refugee claims. Although, he adds, the Hohots decision still causes him concern. He says he believes refugee lawyers have often been treated too lightly in the past when it comes to penalties imposed.

“The law society has recognized the consequences when lawyers completely fail to serve refugee clients ethically and competently are huge,” he says. “As long as I’ve been practising, I think this is the first time the law society has taken it really seriously.”

He says as Hohots had co-operated the with the law society and agreed to a penalty, “that raises a side question, which is instructive, about to what extent is there a difference in penalty depending on co-operation.”

Boulakia says he thinks Hohots’ penalty “is much too light.”

“To me, I think the real issue is the impact on people’s lives and whether the public is being protected,” he says. “No one who works in this field can understand how five months suspension and being allowed to do refugee cases again made sense given the scope and number of people who were harmed. [In Jaszi,] they got the message; it’s a big change, night and day from previous rulings.”

Counsel for Hohots declined to comment.

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