Damage control: Quebec’s professional corporations

The professional corporations overseeing lawyers and engineers declared recently that they now intend to get even tougher on crooked professionals. Zero tolerance, declared Nicholas Plourde, who stepped down earlier this month as the head of the Quebec bar. The president of the Quebec engineering professional corporation stated that his organization is “determined to get to the heart of the matter and restore public trust.

Following a parade of arrests made by the province’s anti-corruption police unit and troubling revelations disclosed by Quebec’s inquiry into allegations of corruption and construction-industry wrongdoing, the reputation of lawyers has been sullied and the standing of engineers in tatters. The inquiry, ably headed by Justice France Charbonneau, has heard hundreds of hours of testimony over the past year from more than 80 witnesses who shed light into the deeply-rooted system of kickbacks, bribes, and illegal fundraising, linking the province’s construction industry to politicians, civil servants, and engineers and lawyers.

All of which begs the question: how effective is the oversight of Quebec’s professional corporations? In Quebec there is a formal system in place to protect the public from professionals. A law called the Professional Code, introduced nearly forty years ago, lays the foundation of this system. The Code spawned the creation of organizations, or professional orders as they are known in Quebec, to oversee professionals. Each professional order has powers of self-regulation and self-discipline to fulfil their mission of protecting the public.

All told, there are 44 professional orders that govern the practice of 344,000 professionals. All professional orders are overseen by a government agency, l’Office des professions du Québec, whose mandate lies with ensuring that that each order guarantees protection of the public. Each of these orders must name people who investigate transgressions. In Quebec they are called syndics, presumably borrowing from the Greek term for individuals who help in a court of justice.At last count more than sixty people worked for the Quebec law society’s investigative branch. Its annual budget is an impressive $7.4 million, according to the law society’s 2012-13 annual report. Between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, the Barreau du Québec’s investigative branch opened 3,522 dossiers, 2,245 of which are still pending. The syndic believed that it had reasonable grounds that a professional committed an offence on 54 instances last year, and brought the matter to the attention of the law society’s disciplinary committee. In more than 1,000 cases (1,029 to be precise), the syndic felt there was no grounds to bring up the matter before the disciplinary committee.

The Barreau’s disciplinary council heard 93 cases between April 2012 and March 2013, and issued 107 decisions. According to the law society’s annual report the disciplinary council

  • authorized the retraction of the complaint lodged by the syndic in 4 cases,
  • rejected the complaint in 13 cases,
  • acquitted the lawyer in 3 cases,
  • found a lawyer guilty in 17 cases,
  • acquitted and found the lawyer guilty in 3 cases,
  • found the lawyer guilty and imposed a sanction in 20 cases,
  • imposed a sanction in 24 cases,
  • came to another decision in 22 cases,
  • and halted the procedures in a single case.

Again, according to the latest annual report, the law society’s disciplinary council disbarred lawyers:

  • for a period of three months and less in 28 cases,
  • between three months and less than a year in 21 cases,
  • between a year and five years in 154 cases,
  • permanently disbarred lawyers in 23 cases.

But astonishingly the law society’s disciplinary council did not hear a single case between April 2012 and March 2013 that touched on the sordid revelations made during the Charbonneau Commission. A disquieting number of cases dealt with misappropriation of trust funds but the Barreau’s disciplinary council did not hear a single case that involved bribery, corruption or kickbacks.

Last May, just before he completed his year-long mandate, the batonnier of Quebec’s legal society made a rather unusual public disclosure. He confirmed that the syndic is now conducting an investigation on three lawyers who were arrested recently by the province’s anti-corruption police unit. “The Barreau is not in the habit of coming out publicly over investigations the syndic is conducting,” acknowledged Plourde. “But the Barreau is very preoccupied by what is happening. We decided to come out to reassure the public.”

Plourde also called on the provincial government to hand the syndic the power to temporarily suspend lawyers facing criminal charges. In the meantime, the Barreau has added more staff to its investigative branch to deal with an “increase demand for investigations generated” by the Charbonneau Commission, wrote the Barreau’s executive director Claude Provencher in its latest annual report.

The Quebec engineering professional corporation too is playing catch-up. In a commentary published by the Montreal Gazette, the president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec vaunted that it has launched an “unprecedented initiative in Quebec’s professional system.” A voluntary audit program for consulting-engineering firms has been established to allow it to examine their business practices and “encourage their integrity.” A laughable endeavour, if it weren’t so pathetic.

Daniel Lebel, the president of the Quebec professional engineering order, too has admitted that in the wake of revelations made during the Charbonneau Commission that the syndic has “systematically opened inquiries at the centre of the allegations.” According to its 2012-13 annual report, the syndic’s office received 294 requests to investigate its members. The syndic is currently investigating 233 cases involving 211 engineers. Approximately 30 per cent of the cases are linked to revelations made during the Charbonneau Commission. Again, the question lingers: since the principal mandate of the professional corporation is to protect the public, where have they been all these years?

Even then, Lebel warns the public to be patient as the disciplinary process may be lengthy. In an odd turn of phrase Lebel says: “These inquiries (by the syndic) will only lead to complaints, which must be founded on solid evidence, and ultimately to punishments if the Ordre has enough time to do everything it must to complete them.” No explanation was given by what he means if the professional corporation “has enough time.”

Jacques Duchesneau, a former Chief of the Montreal police and former head of a Quebec anti-collusion unit who leaked his own report on the scope of corruption in the awarding of construction contracts, justly condemned the wall of secrecy that has rocked Quebec.

That wall is now crumbling but it remains that questions have to be raised around the efficacy of the professional system in place in Quebec for more than a generation. Where were they when Quebecers needed them most?

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