Backgrounder – Unauthorized practice of law
The Law Society is authorized to pursue complaints about people who are not lawyers and are involved in the unauthorized practice of law.
According to BC’s Legal Profession Act, only a practising lawyer (someone accredited and licensed by the Law Society of BC) is entitled to practice law, with some exceptions. For example, any citizen can represent themselves and other professionals can offer some legal services.
Factors in deciding to pursue a complaint
When the Society assesses whether to pursue a complaint of unauthorized practice, it uses discretion and is guided by the general principles of public interest and protection of the public. The organization is sensitive to the fact that many people cannot afford lawyers and encourages various alternatives to help people access affordable legal services. The Society’s focus is strictly on those who contravene the provisions of the Legal Profession Act and who pose a danger to the public interest in the administration of justice. The following outlines part of the evaluation process for a complaint of unauthorized practice:
- Is the person charging a fee: The legislature has determined that only lawyers with legal training, insurance and regulation can engage in the practice of law for a fee, gain or reward from clients. By doing so, the government has determined it is not in the public interest to allow someone who is not a lawyer to charge people a fee when that person’s legal rights, interests or responsibilities are at stake.
- Is the person posing as a lawyer: Lawyers are subject to a strict set of rules and they have to meet ethical and educational standards, which is why the legislation says only lawyers can use that word to describe their profession. Also, by law, they have to carry insurance which provides coverage if they make a mistake. Lawyers are also regulated, so the public have someone to complain to if a lawyer violates Law Society rules or standards of professional conduct. The Law Society can also let people know if a lawyer has been the subject of any Law Society discipline citations. Lawyers are also officers of the court and therefore are accountable to the court for their conduct.
- Is the person a disbarred lawyer: When a lawyer has been disbarred, he or she has been found by definition unfit to practice law. The provincial government has legislated that those persons are a threat to the public whether they offer legal services for a fee or not.
- Is harm being done or is there the potential for harm: If the Law Society receives information that someone is acting on behalf of another person in court or before a tribunal and there is harm or the potential to cause harm or bring the administration of justice into disrepute, the Law Society may take action.
The Law Society will review the information in the complaint and investigate, and will take the steps necessary to resolve it if the facts show there someone is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
The first step is to contact the person involved. Most people will refrain from the unauthorized practice of law after the Law Society provides an explanation of the restrictions. However, if the unauthorized practice persists, the Law Society has statutory authority to seek a court injunction.
Examples of court injunctions
Christiane von Pfahlenberg: The Law Society sought court orders after he was found to be preying on vulnerable populations, including seniors at a senior’s residence. In 2011 he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for contempt of a court injunction to stop offering legal services.
John Ruiz Dempsey: Calling himself a lawyer, he initiated a large volume of cases on behalf of some people and many of the misguided actions he commenced were dismissed, leaving his “clients” ordered to pay costs. In 2007 a BC judge found him in contempt of a court injunction order, and he was sentenced to a month in jail.
John P. Gorman: Gorman is not authorized to act as a lawyer in BC after being disbarred in Ontario. When a person has been disbarred they have been found by definition unfit to practice law. The provincial government has legislated that those persons are a threat to the public whether they offer legal services for a fee or not. The Law Society sought orders against him and in 2011 he was found in contempt of an order and the judge sentenced him to two weeks in jail and fined him $5,000.
Glen P. Robbins: Robbins brought an action against various parties on behalf of his wife and mother-in-law. Although he provided his legal services for free, the court found Robbins brought chaos to the court system with incomprehensible pleadings and against innocent parties. In 2011, the court found that Law Society was correct in preventing Robbins from commencing, prosecuting and defending actions in the name of others regardless of whether he charged a fee.