Law Society of British Columbia disbars former Surrey lawyer for being 'ungovernable'

Aaron Murray Lessing's 'persistent failure to respond' affected LSBC's ability to investigate claims

Law Society of British Columbia disbars former Surrey lawyer for being 'ungovernable'
The Law Society of British Columbia has disbarred former Surrey lawyer Aaron Murray Lessing

The Law Society of British Columbia has disbarred a former Surrey, B.C. lawyer, effective immediately, after a tribunal found him to be “ungovernable.”

The society announced on Feb. 3 that Anthony Murray Lessing committed professional misconduct by failing to provide “full and substantive responses” during investigations into five separate complaints against him.

The panel concluded that Lessing’s “persistent and long-standing failure to respond compromised the society’s ability to conduct its investigations into complaints brought forward by the public, which undermines public confidence in the disciplinary process and the legal profession.”

The panel considered Lessing’s escalating pattern of misconduct as evidenced by his extensive professional conduct record. This includes six conduct reviews, practice standards recommendations, five administrative suspensions, two Facts and Determination decisions and two Disciplinary Action decisions.

“The hearing panel’s conclusion upon reviewing [Lessing’s] personal conduct record is that [he] has accrued a grossly disproportionate number of complaints over his career," the decision said. He "has failed to reform his behaviour in the face of multiple conduct reviews, steps in the progressive discipline process, and remedial interventions, and has exhibited repeated instances of poor judgment, blaming others for his misconduct and disregard for his professional obligations.”

The panel added, “this amounts to a consistent unwillingness to submit to, and a wanton disregard and disrespect for, the regulatory process.” It said his actions have made him ungovernable, and he “cannot retain the privilege of a licence to practise law and concludes that the appropriate penalty in this matter must be, and is, disbarment.”

The society panel also determined the “repeated pattern” of non-response by Lessing “frustrates the . . . investigation process and prevents resolution of complaints. The rules requiring full and responsive answers to inquiries are foundational to the law society’s ability to fulfill its duty to regulate in the public interest. A lawyer’s repeated lack of compliance will undermine public confidence in the law society.”

The society said that even though Lessing is a “former lawyer,” having not paid his fees to the society, the hearing panel found that disbarment serves a “variety of purposes,” including specific and general deterrence, and will meaningfully protect the public interest and enhance public confidence in the disciplinary process.”

Each of the five allegations in the citation against Lessing relates to a series of alleged failures to respond adequately to communications from the law society regarding separate investigations that ran from late 2018 to early 2020. These include:

  • An allegation relating to a complaint made to the society by client P.S. in December 2018. Lessing is alleged to have failed to respond to letters sent by the society dated May 13, 2019, Dec. 17, 2019, and Jan. 13, 2020.
  • An allegation relating to criminal charges against Lessing. He is alleged to have failed to adequately respond to letters dated Nov. 18, 2019, Nov. 22, 2019, and Dec. 2, 2019. In June 2019, the society had agreed to hold off on investigating these matters for one year, or until the criminal proceedings were resolved. But in November, the society wrote Lessing with 17 requests for information. The society explained that the reason for these requests was that it believed Lessing had recently been arrested on Oct. 28, 2019, and Nov. 14, 2019, and was considering whether to make an extraordinary order to protect the public according to the society’s rules. While Lessing provided some responses, the law society said it wasn’t enough and suspended him.
  • An allegation relating to a complaint made by M.G. on Jul. 24, 2019. She complained that the Lessing was the executor of her deceased father’s estate but had failed to administer the estate in a timely fashion and was not responsive to her communications. On Jul. 25, 2019, the Law Society opened an investigation into the complaint. On Aug. 27, 2019, the society wrote seeking answers to several questions related to M.G.’s complaint by Sept. 17, 2019. Lessing did not respond by the deadline or adequately respond to subsequent deadlines.
  • An allegation dealing with a complaint by client P.S., relating to failure to disclose debts relating to tax judgments. Again, the society said Lessing did not adequately respond to requests from the society asking for answers to their questions on this matter.
  • The fifth allegation relates to a complaint made by KM on Sept. 4, 2019, dealing with a family law matter. The society sent several letters asking for information, to which Lessing never responded. On Dec. 17, 2019, the society sent a letter to the Respondent, care of his lawyer at the time, informing him that he had been suspended for failing to respond. Lessing also became a former member of the society due to non-payment of fees.

In January 2020, Lessing’s lawyer sent a letter to the society stating that his client had decided to leave the practice of law. Should Lessing choose to return, he would have to deal with the matters under investigation to satisfy the law society he is fit to practice. Lessing’s lawyer later wrote, in April 2020, that he was no longer representing the client.

On May 4, 2020, the society sent a letter to the email address associated with Lessing’s records. Lessing replied using a different email address stating he had sent a letter indicating he had terminated his membership and agreed not to seek reinstatement.

The society replied to this email, advising Lessing that it did not know about this request. Lessing replied that he had sent the earlier letter from the Fort St. John library and did not have a copy of the letter.

In making its determination on Lessing’s case, the society panel said the law society’s rules and the B.C. Code “impose unforgiving standards” for responding to the society’s communications and co-operating fully with any investigation by providing records or attending an interview as soon as practicable.

“A failure to respond to the law society, provided it is persistent and unexplained, will, standing alone, satisfy . . . the burden to demonstrate professional misconduct, because such a persistent and unexplained failure is a marked departure from the behaviour expected from a practicing lawyer in British Columbia.”

In 2019, Lessing was charged with one count of assault causing bodily harm and one count of assault with a weapon. There is a publication ban on details of the case. Lessing was also charged with breaching his bail conditions on Oct. 30, 2019. The charges are alleged to have happened in Surrey between Jan. 1, 1999, and Dec. 31, 2002.

B.C. provincial court records in Surrey indicate that on the first count, assault causing bodily harm, Lessing has pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault. He also pled guilty of a breach of undertaking or recognizance. There is no disposition on the second criminal charge, assault with a weapon. Lessing’s next date to be in provincial court is scheduled for Apr. 28.

The society has previously given Lessing citations. In one case, he failed to notify the society of judgements against him totalling more than $187,000. The society determined that Lessing’s failure to report his debts was professional misconduct.

In the second citation, Lessing failed to comply with three court orders during a family case between him and his former spouse. Lessing was representing himself. He was found in contempt of court, but the contempt was later purged. The society found that Lessing’s conduct was unbecoming of a lawyer.

In 2013, Lessing was suspended from practising law for one month and ordered to pay costs of $8,000. The suspension replaced a previous decision to make him pay fines and costs of $22,000. Lessing was also prohibited from representing himself in any court or tribunal without written consent from the society.

On the society’s online learning page, it notes that Section 7.1-1 of The B.C. Code states that a lawyer “must reply promptly and completely to any communication from the society.” In Re Dobbin, [1999] LSBC 27, society benchers put the duty to respond to communications in context:

“If the Law Society cannot count on prompt, candid, and complete replies by members to its communications, it will be unable to uphold and protect the public interest, which is the Law Society’s paramount duty. The duty to reply to communications from the society is at the heart of the society’s regulation of the practice of law, and it is essential . . . to uphold and protect the interest of its members. If members could ignore communications . . . the profession would not be governed but would be in a state of anarchy.

The decision went on to observe that “frequently, the member’s failure to respond to Law Society communications is a sequel to a prior, frustrating failure to respond to client communications or to other lawyers’ communications. Procrastination in responding to the Law Society, or willful failure to respond to the Law Society, may be symptomatic of other practice problems involving delay on files or other dereliction of professional duty.”

It adds the society is put in an “impossible position in dealing with disgruntled clients or disgruntled other lawyers, by a member’s intransigent failure to respond. . . . As a result, it is the decision of the benchers that unexplained persistent failure to respond to Law Society communication will always be prima facie evidence of professional misconduct which throws upon the Respondent member a persuasive burden to excuse their conduct.

The web page says that if a lawyer receives communication that requires a response – “do not ignore the communications; This is not a circumstance where it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

Other advice the site provides include:

  • Consider whether you need to seek the advice of counsel.
  • The majority of complaints the society receives about lawyers do not lead to disciplinary measures. A lawyer turns a potential problem into an actual problem by failing to respond.
  • Review your response to ensure the tone and content are appropriate. Pause, reflect, and craft a measured response.
  • In your response, stick to the facts and strive for accuracy.
  • If the complaint involves allegations of negligence, contact a claims counsel at the Lawyers Insurance Fund.

Lessing could not be reached for comment.

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