Complaints, Lawyer Discipline and Public Hearings

Decision of the hearing panel on facts and determination

Peter Darren Steven Hart

Vancouver, BC

Called to the bar: May 20, 1994

Disbarred: July 20, 2021

Hearing dates: September 14 to 18, 2020, January 11 and 25, 2021, March 22 to 26, 2021, April 6 to 7, 2021 and May 17 to 18, 2021

Written submissions: June 22, 2021

Decision issued: December 1, 2021 (2021 LSBC 49)

Panel: Bruce LeRose, QC, Chair, Geoffrey McDonald and Mark Rushton

Counsel: Mandana Namazi and Ilana Teicher for the Law Society; Peter Firestone for Peter Darren Steven Hart from September 14 to January 11, 2021 and Peter Darren Steven Hart appearing on his own behalf from January 25, 2021 onwards

FACTS

Peter Darren Steven Hart acted for a client in a family law matter against her former spouse. The client’s mental health had deteriorated during the marriage and she was under psychiatric care. She had no income and nearly no assets when Hart’s firm took on the file. Her primary concern was obtaining spousal support.

Hart’s firm never obtained spousal support for the client. In seven months, with the exception of an application to approve a contingency fee agreement that entitled the firm to 20 per cent of any settlement, no applications, judicial case conferences, examinations for discovery nor mediations occurred. Disclosure remained incomplete and no expert reports were sought. Hart never met with the client, communicating only through telephone, email and text messages.

Hart made several settlement offers on the client’s behalf after the contingency fee agreement was approved. An issue in dispute was whether Hart made the offers with the client’s knowledge and informed instructions before he signed a memorandum of understanding with opposing counsel that gave the client a 1.5 million cash payment, $1.1 million in RRSPs, approximately 30 per cent in stock options and units and no spousal support. He did not use an accountant, but had a junior associate, value the settlement, which was estimated to be $5.1 million. When a cash payment of $1.5 million came into trust, Hart took far more than the 20 per cent specified in the contingency fee agreement. He billed $1,127,850.49, which was 20 per cent of the junior associate’s estimated value, plus taxes and disbursements.

The client continued to correspond with Hart about obtaining spousal support, and Hart suggested obtaining spousal support was possible despite the settlement expressly prohibiting it. In a fee review in the Supreme Court, the court found Hart obtained a poor result for the client and reduced his fees to $125,000. Hart was ordered to refund the difference and, by the time of the disciplinary hearing, he had only refunded $8,000.

Hart admitted he failed to take notes, failed to confirm instructions in writing, failed to give written advice to the client and never met with the client face to face, but he asserted that he was following the client’s instructions in seeking a settlement in the range of $5 million, making offers to settle the file, adjourning the judicial case conference, the application for spousal support and the mediation, and taking the full contingency fee based on the $5.1 million valuation completed by his junior associate.

DETERMINATION

The panel found that Hart’s evidence was contradictory and not credible. It accepted the evidence of other witnesses, particularly the client. The panel found Hart failed to maintain a reasonable record of his communications with the client, did not take steps to ensure she was fully informed before entering into the contingency fee agreement, made settlement offers without instructions to do so, obtained a settlement that was substantially less than what the client had instructed and did not include spousal support, and continued to mislead the client into believing she would receive spousal support.

The panel also found that Hart took fees he was not entitled to under the contingency fee agreement, did not provide the quality of service of a competent lawyer, was deliberately dishonest to the client and failed to act with honesty and integrity

The panel determined that Hart committed professional misconduct.

 

2021 LSBC 49 Decision on Facts and Determination