From the Equity Ombudsperson
Keeping your workplace harassment-free
Anne Bhanu Chopra
A recent decision of an Ontario discipline panel to disbar a lawyer for sexual harassment should alert lawyers across the country to the fact that harassment is serious misconduct and has the potential for serious consequences. Lawyers need to keep their workplaces free of harassment and other forms of discrimination, both as a matter of law and professional responsibility.
Earlier this year a discipline panel of the Law Society of Upper Canada disbarred Toronto lawyer Gary Neinstein for professional misconduct in having sexually harassed two women, one a client and the other a secretary at his firm, in the early 1990s. The disbarment has been stayed, pending an appeal.
The panel found that the respondent lawyer had demonstrated a disrespect for the trust placed in him as a lawyer and that "… in our considered view, sexual harassment representing a breach of trust must be seen as equivalent to a breach of trust with respect to a client’s money."
According to media reports, this is the first time in Ontario (and the second time in Canada) that a lawyer has lost the right to practise law as a result of sexual harassment. Every discipline case turns on its own facts, of course, and each jurisdiction is different, so it would be unwise to suggest that disbarment is a likely penalty for harassment.
Nevertheless, sexual harassment by lawyers is a serious matter under human rights legislation and is also prohibited in BC by Chapter 2 of the Professional Conduct Handbook.
As Equity Ombudsperson, I hear from those who have faced harassment in law firms, mostly women. The consequences are distressing, sometimes devastating, for all concerned.
Managing partners, chairs of internal committees and lawyers generally need to be alive to the problem and learn which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. By actively committing to a respectful working environment free of discrimination and harassment, you can:
- save your firm’s reputation,
- retain qualified employees,
- avoid the cost of litigation, and
- be a model employer.
The Law Society offers BC lawyers, students and staff the free, confidential and independent services of an Equity Ombudsperson. I am here to provide you with options for addressing harassment problems in the workplace. And I can help law firms with advice and strategies to:
- communicate to all members of the firm what behaviour constitutes sexual harassment,
- appoint individuals to advise everyone in a firm on workplace policies and initiatives,
- adopt internal and formal procedures to deal with any person violating the policies, and
- educate lawyers and staff on the Equity Ombudsperson program.
I am available for individual consultations, educational seminars or consultations with firms on ways to create a positive law firm culture, rejuvenate the workplace and increase productivity. You can contact me by telephone at 604 687-2344 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All messages are confidential.