Peter Hart 'exploited client' while Aaron Lessing is found 'ungovernable'
The Law Society of British Columbia has ordered additional sanctions against two already-disbarred lawyers.
In separate decisions issued by the LSBC tribunal, lawyers Peter Darren Steven Hart and Aaron Murray Lessing were ordered disbarred. The orders were made in tribunal hearings that concluded after previous hearings into different matters resolved with both Hart and Lessing being disbarred.
In the most recent tribunal decision for Hart’s disciplinary action, the panel found that Hart committed professional misconduct when he betrayed, misled, and “exploited a vulnerable client he knew to be suffering from a mental illness.”
“The panel found that Hart provided an abysmal quality of service, failed to act with honesty and candour, and that he pressured his client into entering an unfair and unethical contingency fee agreement,” the society said in a press release.
The panel further found that Hart entered into a settlement that was contrary to his client’s instructions, he misled her about the terms of the settlement, and he took over $1 million in fees to which he was not entitled.
In ordering disbarment, the panel considered the “extremely grave” nature of Hart’s misconduct, the fact that it was deliberate and calculated, and that it had a profound impact on the client who has suffered irreparable emotional and financial harm.
The panel also considered that Hart’s misconduct compromised the sanctity of the solicitor-client relationship and dishonoured the legal profession. It concluded that the facts require strong disciplinary action that protects the public and provides general deterrence.
The decision says that Hart ignored his client’s instructions and acted solely for his own personal financial benefit.
“The impact on the client has been profound. She is financially destitute. What should have been an adequate divorce settlement to ensure her future financial security was decimated by the respondent.”
As well, the tribunal notes the ongoing litigation for the taxation of the respondent’s fee as well as society proceedings, “has negatively impacted her mental health and her ongoing attempts to heal.”
The decision also says “It is worth noting that had the respondent abided by the terms of the unfair and unethical contingency fee agreement, he could only have taken approximately $300,000 or 20 per cent of the received settlement funds. Instead, he helped himself to $1.127 million.”
As well, despite a 2018 court order requiring the Hart to repay the client, he has only provided a little over $18,000 – “less money than he spent taking his entire office on a holiday in Las Vegas.”
The tribunal panel also points out that lawyers have been disbarred for far less than what Hart did in this case. Even the circumstances of Hart’s other citation, for which he was disbarred, “is far less egregious.”
In that prior case, all the misappropriated, or improperly withdrawn funds, were repaid to his clients with ten per cent interest. In this case, despite being ordered to repay fees in 2018 the Respondent has repaid less than two per cent of the money owed.
Further, there are no mitigating factors, the panel decision says, even though “throughout the hearing Hart “repeatedly attempted to justify his unethical and, in the panel’s view, indefensible behaviour.”
The panel went on to say that “individuals who act without integrity and exploit their clients for their own financial gain have no place in the legal profession.” Lawyers are “supposed to be the ones protecting vulnerable people,” and that public “should be able to rely on their lawyer to act in their best interests, treating them with respect, honesty and candour.”
In the decision for Lessing’s disciplinary action, the panel found that Lessing committed professional misconduct while serving as executor of a former client’s estate, by failing to take appropriate and timely steps to probate his client’s will and administer the estate, failing to respond to communications from the beneficiaries and a bank, and failing to renounce his executorship.
The hearing panel found that, “rather than ensuring that he was promptly and diligently fulfilling his role as executor and trustee, Lessing became the direct cause of the delay in obtaining probate and administering the estate.”
In ordering disbarment, the panel considered Lessing’s professional conduct record, “which shows a pattern of misconduct and includes the prior disbarment and a finding that Lessing is ungovernable.”
In the previous citation than led to Lessing’s first disbarment, the society announced on Feb. 3 that he committed professional misconduct by failing to provide “full and substantive responses” during investigations into five separate complaints against him.
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.
- An allegation relating to a complaint made by K.M. 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.
The panel concluded that Lessing’s misconduct, along with his lengthy professional conduct record, justified an independent determination of ungovernability and disbarment. The society wanted a declaration of ungovernability and a second disbarment “on the basis that a second disbarment would be in the public’s interest and would enhance the public’s confidence in the disciplinary process by underscoring the seriousness of [Lessing’s] misconduct.”
The public “will not have confidence in a self-regulating profession if its ungovernable members are permitted to continue to practise or, in the case of former members, if a clear declaration is not made that the ungovernable member is not suited to the practice of law.”
Lessing’s “repeated failure to cooperate with the law society poses a danger to the public and to the legal profession,” the panel decision said. “The respondent has demonstrated both a consistent unwillingness and a wanton disregard and disrespect for the regulatory processes that govern him.