Quebec Bar president donates part of his salary

The new president of the Quebec Bar is donating a quarter of his salary, or approximately $80,000, to either an access to justice initiative or a scholarship fund.

Paul-Matthieu Grondin has invited people to communicate with him with suggestions as to who should benefit from his generosity.

Naysayers, and there are always many, have described the move as either a cynical political move or a gaffe. Lu Chan Khuong, former Bar president who was soundly beaten by Grondin in the recent election, said that she was disappointed by his gesture. “A donation is not a reduction in salary, and donations, we all do it,” Khuong told a French-language site. “It’s easy to be generous with the monies of others.” She would have rather have seen Grondin slash member fees.

In the meantime, change is taking place at the Quebec Bar. Transparency, for one, is now the new buzzword. The Board of Directors met recently and ostensibly for the first time published all documents stemming from the meeting.

The Quebec Bar is also looking for a chief of staff for the new president. Details can be found here.

New Quebec Bar president lays bare uncomfortable truths about Quebec justice

Barely a few minutes after reciting the oath as new president of the Quebec legal society, Paul-Matthieu Grondin laid bare uncomfortable truths about the Quebec justice system and the Quebec Bar itself.

Grondin won the first prize at the International Oratory Competition in Brussels, Belgium a couple of years ago, and it showed. Grondin laid out a crisp and sharp portrait of the challenges facing the legal world before an audience of Quebec legal heavyweights at the Chateau Frontenac in picturesque Quebec City. The Quebec Minister of Justice had a front row seat as did the Court of Quebec Chief Justice, the Court of Quebec Associate Chief Judge and Court of Quebec Associate Chief Judges.

Paul-Matthieu Grondin & Claudia Prémont

The justice system has seen better days, said Grondin in an understatement. It is complex, unwieldy, and costly. More and more people are representing themselves. Justice in the North is akin to justice in the Third World. The justice system is now beginning to reel with the consequences of the landmark Jordan decision by the nation’s highest court. Courthouses remain “hangers for paper.” The provincial budget devotes a meagre one per cent to the justice system. The manner in which the Quebec government handled the strike by Quebec government lawyers and notaries, the longest Canadian labour conflict by civil servants, was not a “glorious example of our new legal culture.” The profession, it is said, is in decline, incapable of renewing itself and innovating. Young lawyers struggle to find work. The number of lawyers in the province has doubled over the past twenty years while the population has grown only by 15 per cent, “with the implications you can imagine on supply and demand.”

He wasn’t finished.

The Board of Directors of the Quebec Bar is composed of Francophones, with the exception of one. The Bar itself is not very transparent, and it quarrels. The profession is unequal. Women do not easily gain access to partnerships, leave the profession too early and too frequently. “That is what is said. These are scathing comments. We are fully aware of them, and have been for a long time.”

He had even harsher words for his peers.

“How can we claim to protect the public if we accept a system that is unfair, inefficient and inaccessible? How can we claim to protect the public if we accept that the fundamental strategy behind (winning) a case is (based on) the means that one has, the one who has the deepest pockets? We should never be resigned to such a system.”

He also had a few choice words aimed at some members of the Barreau du Québec in hope of staving off internal strife within the Quebec Bar that dates back to two years ago.

Lu Chan Khuong, a prominent Quebec City lawyer who was elected president of the Barreau du Québec in May 2015 with 63 per cent of the vote, was suspended by the Quebec Bar’s board of directors two months later after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Montreal. Khuong, who maintains her innocence, was never charged. She formally stepped down in mid-September 2015 after a settlement agreement was reached with the Barreau and its board of directors that provided Khuong with “assurances” that her electoral program would still be considered, and where possible, put in place.

Khuong decided to try her luck again this year. But her yearning to lead the Quebec Bar was dashed after she was trounced by Grondin who won 72 per cent of the vote in an election that was held in May 2017. By most accounts outgoing president Claudia Prémont brought back “peace and serenity” to the Quebec Bar, as a lawyer told me, but there is evidently still some bad blood. It appears Grondin thought it was an opportune time to send a warning to some.

“As for our image, I hope the quarrels are behind us. I have a message to the four or five lawyers who know who they are and who ask the Bar questions, sometimes with the hope of finding fault to the point that sometimes we wonder about their good faith. To these lawyers I tell you this: The Bar will always be open to questions, always be open to criticism, and each time it will be done in good faith I will reach out. But in return please stop the dramatic and hyperbolic stances in the media. These letters do us more harm than good. This is your Bar. I need you to maintain it, to renew it.”

Renewal is a word that was peppered throughout his discourse. Under his leadership, Grondin made it clear that the Quebec Bar will push for a simplified justice system. He will push the provincial government to pour more money into the justice system. He wants to see courthouses adopt technology, something that is beginning to be done in administrative tribunals. He embraces artificial intelligence and wants to help new emerging Quebec LegalTechs by pushing for new regulations. He wants more diversity within the Bar itself.

But Grondin offered few clues on how he intends to grapple with the emergence of new competitive and disruptive forces that pose formidable challenges to a legal marketplace in a state of flux at a time when few are content with the legal and justice system.

When he finished his address, Grondin briefly nodded at the audience, stood back from the microphones, and rubbed his hands. As the audience of some two hundred-odd lawyers began to applaud, Grondin smiled but once, as if the weight on what lay ahead dawned on the thirty-three year old Montreal lawyer.

A new clash between Quebec bar and former president

Here we go again. Another skirmish between a prominent Quebec City lawyer and the provincial law society that has turned ugly.

Lu Chan Khuong alleges that administrators of the Barreau du Québec illegally profited from an increase in attendance fees totaling $501,000. Khuong alleges that the Barreau’s current administrators illicitly boosted attendance fees paid to them for participating in meetings held by the law society from $300 to $800 without changing regulations. Khuong alleges that administrators charged $400 for teleconferences, and up to $800 for attending reunions.

According to article 5.07 of Regulation respecting the administration of the business of the Barreau du Québec, board members – with the exception of the bâtonnière (or president) and vice-president – can receive $300 for attending board meetings.

Khuong’s spouse, former Quebec justice minister Marc Bellemare, sent a legal notice this week to the Barreau demanding the recovery of the monies as well as an end to the payment formula.

Khuong is also calling for the Quebec Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée and the provincial agency that oversees professional corporations to intervene and investigate the matter.

All of these shenanigans are taking place in the middle of an election that will be held on May when the province’s 25,000 lawyers will be voting for either the current bâtonnière Claudia Prémont or Khuong as president.

Khuong briefly headed the Quebec legal society but reluctantly resigned after a bitter and protracted fracas with the board of directors of the Barreau. On May 2015 she was elected president of the Barreau with 63 per cent of the vote but was suspended by the Bar’s board of directors two months later after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Montreal. Khuong, who has always maintained her innocence, was never charged. She formally stepped down in mid-September after a settlement agreement was reached with the Barreau and its board of directors that provided Khuong with “assurances” that her electoral program would still be considered, and where possible, put in place.

“I am ashamed by my professional corporation,” told me Khuong recently. “I am ashamed by the way that justice was treated in 2016.”

Now she wants to shake up the Barreau.

But there is a fine line between shaking up an institution and disparaging an organization she wants to lead at a time when confidence in the justice system, particularly in light of the landmark Jordan ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, has been dented.

And if Khuong’s allegations are true, the Barreau should have known better. The legal profession is undergoing turbulent changes, and many of its members are paying the price. Board members who allegedly unilaterally increased their stipends to $800 for attending a meeting should take the time to browse a troubling report by the Young Bar of Montreal that revealed that growing numbers of Quebec lawyers are having a hard time making ends meet.

Approximately 25 per cent fewer law students found articling positions before the end of their professional training at the Quebec Bar School compared to 2004. Equally dismaying, salaries for articling positions dropped over the past decade by an inflation-adjusted 16 per cent to $543 per week. And those are the lucky ones as the number of unpaid articling positions has doubled over the same period. In 2004 one out of 50 law students with an articling position was unpaid compared to one out of 23 today.

Even those who managed to find articling positions quickly discovered that it did not necessarily lead to a job. In 2004, 11.8 per cent of lawyers were unemployed at the time of their registration on the Roll of the Order – a figure that now stands at 18.2 per cent.

In yet another dismaying finding, the report reveals that young lawyers who do find work can no longer count on making as much as much as those who entered the profession in 2004: 17 per cent of lawyers who enrolled in the bar between the years 2004 and 2008 earned over $110,000 compared to a paltry 0.7 per cent today. At the end of the other scale, nearly one in three lawyers admitted to the bar in 2013 earned less than $20,000 compared to 3.5 per cent who entered the bar between 2004 and 2008.

Now that’s fodder for a vigorous debate.

Husband and wife team hope to lead the Quebec Bar

In an unlikely turn of events, a husband and wife may end up leading the Quebec Bar.

Lu Chan Khuong, the former president of the Quebec legal society who reluctantly resigned after a bitter and protracted fracas with the board of directors of the Barreau du Québec, recently announced that she is going to try her luck once again.

Now her husband, Marc Bellemare, plans to run for a position in the legal society’s Board of Directors. Bellemare, a former Quebec justice minister, is a controversial figure in legal circles. He has long questioned the logic behind Quebec’s no-fault auto insurance program, which he maintains rewards criminals while denying victims the right to sue for more compensation.

More notably, in 2010, Bellemare rocked the legal community when he alleged that the judicial appointment process in Quebec was tainted. He alleged that when he was justice minister he faced under undue pressure by provincial Liberal Party fundraisers, with the consent of former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, to appoint judges. Following the explosive allegations, a public inquiry headed by former Supreme Court of Justice Michel Bastarache was launched. The Bastarache commission made sweeping recommendations to address “several weaknesses” in the Quebec judicial selection and appointment process “vulnerable to all manner of interventions and influence” but dismissed Bellemare’s allegations.

Khuong herself is no stranger to controversy. Khuong, a prominent Quebec City lawyer who was elected president of the Barreau du Québec in May 2015 with 63 per cent of the vote, was suspended by the Quebec Bar’s board of directors two months later after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Montreal. Khuong, who maintains her innocence, was never charged. She formally stepped down in mid-September after a settlement agreement was reached with the Barreau and its board of directors that provided Khuong with “assurances” that her electoral program would still be considered, and where possible, put in place.

Now Khuong and Bellemare want to shake up the Barreau. They maintain that the Quebec Bar is a shadow of the institution it once was – an influential organization that promoted justice and that  “vigorously” was involved in social debates. The couple castigate the Quebec Bar for its “anemic” stance following the landmark Jordan ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada. That decision criticizes the country’s legal system for its “culture of complacency” and sets out new rules for an accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time frame. The Jordan decision laid down a ceiling of 30 months for matters before Superior Court cases to be completed. Provincial court trials should be completed within 18 months of charges being laid, but can be extended to 30 months if there is a preliminary inquiry. Khuong and Bellemare argue that the Quebec Bar should have been more forceful in pushing the Quebec government to adopt measures that would have addressed the growing problems following the Jordan ruling.

They also assert that the Barreau should have taken a public stance supporting Quebec government lawyers and notaries in a labour conflict that turned out to be the longest Canadian strike by public civil servants. “I am ashamed by my professional corporation,” told me Khuong. “I am ashamed by the way that justice was treated in 2016.”

The couple also deride the salary earned by the Quebec Bar’s president. Claudia Prémont, the bâtonnière, will earn a staggering $314,100 this year. They claim that Prémont ostensibly promised to reduce her salary by 39 per cent to $189,000.

“If people feel that justice is being handled correctly, if they feel that the dues members pay is fair, if they feel that the Barreau is being perfectly managed, then don’t vote for me,” said Khuong. “But if you want to modernize this institution, this Bar that has become archaic and outdated, then I am here. But I do not want to be elected with a mandate to maintain the status quo.”

Former president of Quebec legal society temporarily disbarred

Stéphane Rivard could not bear to open correspondence from the Quebec taxman.

During a stretch of four years, between 2007 and 2011, letters outlining collection procedures and seizures launched against him by Revenue Quebec were put by the wayside. Rulings by Quebec Superior Court and by the Federal Court of Canada in 2012 over his tax affairs too were ignored.

On February 2015, it all came to a head when Revenue Quebec sought a petition in bankruptcy, a development that was reported by a French-language paper.

“The respondent was completely demolished,” according to a 19-page ruling issued by the Barreau du Québec’s disciplinary council in Barreau du Québec (syndique adjointe) c. Rivard 2017 QCCDBQ 007. “His family was devastated. The respondent had no choice but to deal with his obligations.”

Rivard, on the roll since 1979, had a “brilliant” career. He was the former head of the Montreal Bar, was elected as president of the Barreau du Québec in 2006, and was awarded Advocatus Emeritus, a distinction bestowed to la crème de la crème of the legal profession.

He also admitted to misappropriating funds. From January 1, 2010 to July 3, 2015, Rivard did not remit $65,000 he collected from clients to pay federal and provincial sales taxes. The “mere fact” that he held on to the monies that were supposed to be handed to federal and provincial tax authorities represents using monies for “other purposes, noted the three-member disciplinary panel. And that, as the Quebec Court of Appeal reminded in a similar case involving a notary in Bourassa c. Gareau, 2015 QCCA 1522, is an act derogatory to the honour, dignity and discipline of the profession, and in breach of article 59.2 of Quebec’s Professional Code.

A CBC news investigation found that the majority of Quebec lawyers sanctioned for having taken or mishandled money from clients or overcharged them, either negligently or intentionally, “were never charged with crimes — and often only disbarred temporarily.” The CBC report reveals that in Ontario, 71 lawyers were disciplined for misappropriating funds, with 17 lawyers suspended and 49 disbarred. In contrast in Quebec, 80 lawyers were disciplined for taking money improperly, with four permanently disbarred and 58 temporarily disbarred.

Claims and settlement expenses for new claims filed in 2015 amounted to $7 million ($8.3 million in 2014), while adverse developments related to claims presented in previous years amounted to $1.3 million, increasing total claims and settlement expenses to $12.5 million ($11.4 million in 2014), according to the 2015 annual report by the Professional Liability Insurance Fund of the Barreau du Québec.

All told, provincial law societies across the country sanctioned 220 members who misappropriated about $160 million of their clients’ funds between 2010 and 2015.

But misappropriation of funds happens more frequently than the profession cares to admit, particularly thefts from a law firm’s general accounts. David Debenham, a certified fraud specialist and investigator who is a partner with McMillan LLP in Ottawa, estimates that only one in ten frauds perpetrated by lawyers, law clerks or staff, come to light. “A lot of firms that had lawyers or law clerks or staff that commit fraud tend to indemnify clients and not report it — it’s sort of the (profession’s) dirty little secret,” told me Debenham, who is also a certified management accountant.

The ruling by the Barreau du Québec’s disciplinary council in the Rivard case appears to provide more fodder to the perception that Quebec is the most lenient province at disciplining lawyers. The Barreau’s assistant syndic, or investigating officer who brought the case before the disciplinary council, argued that the offense committed by Rivard is serious. It was repetitive and took place over a long time. She underlined Rivard’s “cavalier” attitude, and said she heard nothing from his testimony that “reassured” her that he  would not do it again. She added that he does not appear to have recognized that he acted wrongly.

And yet she asked only for a month-long temporary disbarment, even though she acknowledged that traditionally longer sanctions are imposed in cases involving misappropriation.

While the Barreau du Québec’s disciplinary council castigated Rivard for neglecting for far too long “to put order in his finances and accounting,” it heeded her suggestion. This sanction, maintained the disciplinary committee, is neither too lenient nor too severe. While not excusing his conduct it points to extenuating circumstances.

“Illness, professional burnout, and numerous conflicts with Revenue Quebec contributed to the downward spiral of a brilliant lawyer, former bâtonnier of the Barreau du Québec, and recipient of the Advocatus Emeritus for excellence in his professional career and his contributions to the profession,” underlined the ruling.

Quebec legal society calls for shift away from hourly billing

For the “survival of the profession,” the Quebec legal society is calling on its members to shift away from hourly billing to alternative pricing arrangements to better respond to client’s needs, foster greater access to justice for citizens, and encourage a healthier and more balanced professional life for lawyers.

But at a time when approximately 70 per cent of Quebec’s private practitioners still charge by the hour, the Barreau du Québec recognizes that its call for a paradigm shift will require a “total cultural change” that will be met with resistance by many lawyers and law firms who have done well by the status quo, said Claudia Prémont, the president of the Quebec Bar, which recently published an 84-page study entitled “Hourly Billing: A Time for Reflection.”

“Hourly billing is impregnated in our culture,” remarked Prémont. “It is the way that we evaluate if a law firm is prosperous, if a lawyer performs, and if a lawyer can join as a partner. But we have to evolve and offer something else. In some files hourly billing will remain the best way to charge for our services but we believe that there is a portion of legal services that that can be billed differently. It’s in our interest to open up.”

Ever since the hourly billable model replaced monthly billing and fixed pricing in Quebec in the late 1980s, it has been a staple of the legal profession in the province just like it has been elsewhere around the world. Touted by its proponents for its simplicity, the billable hour largely gained a foothold because it provided lawyers with greater predictability of income while minimizing risk because they were paid regardless of the outcome of the case. The adoption of the hourly billing  also “coincided” with a  steady growth of revenues for the majority of lawyers, often surpassing the consumer price index, over the past 20 years. “This increase is a powerful argument to not change the way that they practice law,” notes the study which surveyed 942 in-house and external counsel across the province and held discussion groups with 42 lawyers.

But the combination of market forces, increasingly stringent consumer demands, rapid technological developments, and the fact that fewer and fewer Quebecers are using legal services because of costs, is of “grave concern” and requires a fundamental examination of the way that legal services are offered, states the report. While hourly billing remains germane in cases that require in-depth expertise, it has “reached its limits,” particularly since it has detrimental effects on both lawyers and clients, asserts the report. Lawyers pay the price because of the pressure to bill and the innumerable hours they feel they have to put in to prove their worth, all of which has a negative impact on work-life balance and their health. Indeed, 46 per cent of young Quebec lawyers working in large law firms assert that they feel they cannot maintain the rhythm of working long hours for more than five years. Clients on the other hand bear the brunt because they assume all the risks and are often in the dark over how much the legal services are going to cost because the hourly billing model encourages thoroughness above efficiency.

“It’s clear that the billable hour does not encourage expediency,” noted Daniel Majeau, in-house counsel at Rolls-Royce Canada Ltd. in Montreal and a member of the Barreau’s committee on in-house lawyers. “The more time it takes them, the more a law firm is able to bill. We are billed by time but the value of 15 minutes is not the same all the time. There are some acts that are trivial and end up taking up 15 minutes and they are billed in the same manner as the 15 minutes it may take to negotiate a case that may end up saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a point in time if a law firm or a lawyer does not take the time to closely examine the amount of time he devotes to a task and does not make an effort to reduce the fees, the client will look elsewhere. We (in-house counsel and external lawyers) don’t see things the same way. That’s for sure.”

It’s clear for instance that in-house counsel and external counsel do not see eye-to-eye. According to the study, 59 per cent of in-house counsel are interested in alternative fee arrangements in order to pare down costs as opposed to 9 per cent for external counsel. External counsel are more keen on aligning their interests with their clients than in-house counsel (31 per cent versus 6 per cent) and building lasting relationships with their clients (19 per cent compared to 4 per cent for in-house counsel). External and in-house counsel also have differing views over alternative fee arrangements, with 84 per cent of in-house counsel believing that they can improve the efficiency of legal services compared to 57 per cent of lawyers working in law firms. In-house counsel who have had experience with alternative fee arrangements have a more positive perception of them than external counsel: 51 per cent of in-house counsel who were billed through alternative fee arrangements felt they were just as effective as services rendered through traditional billing and 30 per cent said they were more efficient. In contrast, 36 per cent of external counsel believed alternative fee arrangements were less profitable, 28 per cent considered them to be just as profitable, and only 12 per cent said they were more profitable.

These findings do not surprise Dominique Tardif, vice-president at ZSA Legal Recruitment in Montreal. “In-house counsel face constant pressure to cut costs given the rather gloomy economy,” said Tardif. “Often, the key requisites for in-house counsel is effective management of external counsel, budget management and the ability to cut costs. So their job as in-house counsel is to do the maximum internally and only use external counsel when absolutely necessary. On the other hand, I think it’s altogether normal that private practitioners do not have cost cutting as their principal preoccupation but rather ensuring that their clients are well represented.”

Besides veiled profit motives, the biggest barrier to adopting alternative fee arrangements according to both external (23 per cent) and in-house counsel (32 per cent) is that the billable hour is too well-entrenched in the legal profession. Another obstacle is each other, with 21 per cent of external counsel blaming clients while 21 per cent in-house counsel pinning it on external counsel.

“It’s clear that for those in private practice and who have been using the billable hour since the beginning of their practice, it can be destabilizing to realize that perhaps we can offer our services differently,” said Prémont. “But I believe that by raising awareness and providing tools to our members that alternative fee arrangements will slowly make its way.”

Besides raising awareness to encourage change, the Barreau intends by this fall to offer courses and provide tools to its members they will need to change their business models, added Prémont.

But not everyone is convinced that the Barreau’s study will rouse Quebec lawyers to shift away from the traditional billable hour to alternative fee arrangements, particularly since the Canadian Bar Association covered much of the same terrain when it published its comprehensive report entitled “Futures: Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada.” “If this study can incite people, all the better,” said Pascale Pageau, the president, founder and sole shareholder of Delegatus Legal Services Inc., a Montreal law firm that provides experienced top-notch talent, familiar with the ins-and-outs of business, on an as-needed basis at half the rates charged by traditional law firms. “Studies such as the Barreau’s and the CBA’s can help people realize that there are changes taking place. They can help create awareness. But people are already talking about these things. Clients are much more open to these new business models. We must think of new ways to renew the legal profession.”

Majeau believes that law firms have yet to fully grasp the changes taking place. “They will have to face them,” said Majeau. “Clients cannot force law firms to change but clients can turn to other providers and seek other solutions. It’s unfortunate but it will probably take a crisis before these changes take place.”

Former Quebec law society president back in the spotlight

Lu Chan Khuong, the former president of the Quebec legal society who reluctantly resigned after a bitter and protracted fracas with the board of directors of the Barreau du Québec, is back on the spotlight.

Barely a few weeks after the Barreau and Khuong locked horns once again, the prominent Quebec City lawyer announced she will be collaborating on a French-language radio show that will speak about law in plain language.

The embattled former president of the Quebec Bar has raised the possibility that she may yet come back to seek another term if her electoral platform is not fulfilled by the new president, but Khuong has denied that collaborating on the radio show is part of an overall public relations campaign to boost her image for the 2017 elections. “My principal motive it to make citizens understand the legal system,” said Khuong.

The surprising move comes weeks after the law society castigated Khuong for neglecting to submit a detailed report of her expenses and revenues incurred during last spring’s hard-fought electoral campaign to become head of the Barreau. Khuong instead sent a letter to the law society stating simply that she had incurred $93,000 in expenses, which she had covered personally. She also stated that did not receive a single donation. But the Barreau’s electoral committee said that Khuong’s letter did not spell out detailed information about expenses she may have incurred.

Khuong dismissed the censure by the Barreau as frivolous and far-fetched. “I give no credibility to this committee which is composed of avowed political adversaries,” said Khuong.

Khuong was elected president of the Barreau du Québec last May with 63 per cent of the vote, but was suspended by the Quebec Bar’s board of directors on July 1 after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Laval. Khuong, who maintains her innocence, was never charged.

However under the counsel of her lawyer Khuong accepted an offer of non-judicial treatment to avoid media coverage that likely would have taken place during a trial, particularly since she is well known in the province and is married to former provincial justice minister Marc Bellemare. Under the non-judicial program for minor offenses, a record of the alleged infraction is held for five years in a confidential registry that is accessible only by Crown prosecutors. The slate is wiped clean after five years if the person is not charged with another offence. More than 100,000 Quebecers have resorted to the program since its inception in 1995. The Khuong case marks the first time that confidential information was leaked from the non-judicial program.

Former Quebec law society president settling scores

Barely a couple of weeks after the former president of the Quebec legal society reluctantly resigned after a bitter and protracted fracas with the board of directors of the Barreau du Québec, Lu Chan Khuong is fighting back while raising the possibility that she may yet come back to seek another term if her electoral platform is not fulfilled by the new president.

Lu Chan Khuong IIThe embattled former president of the Quebec Bar formally stepped down in mid-September after a settlement agreement was reached with the Barreau and its board of directors that provided Khuong with “assurances” that her electoral program would still be considered, and where possible, put in place.

“If I listened to myself and took the decision only for me, Lu Chan Khuong personally, I would have pursued the fight and I would have brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Khuong.  “But I said to myself I am bigger than that, and I must take a decision that takes into account everyone and not just my personal interests.”

Khuong’s resignation seemingly ends a summer-long dispute that had literally paralyzed the Barreau while drawing severe criticism from members of Quebec’s legal community who assert that the sorry episode has blotted and undermined the credibility and reputation of the Bar and the profession. Indeed, four Quebec premiers, all of whom are lawyers, even took the unusual step of co-writing a letter stating that the president of the legal society should live up to the highest ethical standards.

“All this for this?” wondered rhetorically Stéphane Beaulac, a law professor at the Université de Montréal. “Her resignation was exactly what the board of directors sought when the allegations were first revealed. Instead we had this psychodrama that tarnished Khuong’s reputation as well as the profession and the Bar. This should have been handled differently.”

Khuong, a prominent Quebec City lawyer who was elected president of the Barreau du Québec this past May with 63 per cent of the vote, was suspended by the Quebec Bar’s board of directors on July 1 after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Laval. Khuong, who maintains her innocence, was never charged.

However under the counsel of her lawyer Khuong accepted an offer of non-judicial treatment to avoid media coverage that likely would have taken place during a trial, particularly since she is well known in the province and is married to former provincial justice minister Marc Bellemare. Under the non-judicial program for minor offenses, a record of the alleged infraction is held for five years in a confidential registry that is accessible only by Crown prosecutors. The slate is wiped clean after five years if the person is not charged with another offence. More than 100,000 Quebecers have resorted to the program since its inception in 1995. The Khuong case marks the first time that confidential information was leaked from the non-judicial program – and Khuong is determined to find out who was the culprit. Only three organizations – Laval police, the Quebec Ministry of Justice, and the retailer Maison Simons — had access to her file, asserts Khuong. She has ruled out the Laval police because they have a “watertight process.”

“I will continue to take steps to find out who the source of the leak and when I’ll know they will be held accountable,” said Khuong. “Not for personal vengeance but the exercise must be made to restore the citizen’s confidence in non-judicial treatment because it is a program that allows the courts to devote time to more complex issues…I have a very good idea of where the leak comes from. It’s not just a leak. It was someone who had several reasons not to have me there (as president).”

Khuong’s suspension lead to an embarrassing public dispute that degenerated into a costly legal battle at a time when the professional corporation has strongly been encouraging the public to resort to alternative dispute resolution, particularly with the onset of the new Code of Civil Procedure next January, which compels parties to alternative ways to resolve disputes before taking them to court. Khuong sued the Bar for $95,000 while demanding to be reinstated to her position as president, and the Quebec Bar countered with its own lawsuit demanding $90,000 before the matter was ultimately resolved with the assistance of former Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice François Rolland who acted as a mediator between the parties.

“For the past two months, if you take a look at the Barreau’s website nothing was done – it was total paralysis,” said Khuong. “All decisions were about my case. I said to myself that I cannot allow the professional corporation in this state and that I must do something about this impasse.”

Other considerations also came into play, beginning with the expenses associated with the lawsuit, admitted Khuong, who estimates that she had spent approximately $500,000 in legal and public relation fees. She believes that it would have cost her an additional $500,000 to hear the month-long case as 22 witnesses expected to testify. The saga also proved to be hard on her two teenagers. Of equal importance was the assurance that she received from the Quebec Bar and the new batonniere that “an effort would be made to apply” her electoral program, added Khuong.

Her program is largely based on slashing expenses at the Barreau. She intended to reduce the salary of the president from $300,800 to $185,000, lower membership fees which now hovers around $3,000, decrease professional liability insurance coverage from $10 million to $2 million, and cut expenses and perks at the Barreau itself. As well, Khuong wanted to make justice more accessible and was intent on lobbying the provincial government to introduce tax credits for legal fees. She also proposed crediting pro bono work towards the legal society’s compulsory continuous training program. In short, Khuong wanted to shake up the Barreau.

“There needs to be a cultural change,” said Khuong. “We need to examine expenditures to see what can be cut and refocus the Barreau on its real mission, which is the protection of the public. International travel on business class for spouses should be a thing of the past because members cannot afford to pay it. Fiscal austerity should be done at all levels. The exercise I wanted to conduct would have been a real diet.”

Claudia Prémont, who was nominated by the board of directors to replace Khuong and was endorsed by Khuong herself, is comfortable with much of Khuong’s electoral platform. “There are many ideas that are part of Khuong’s program with which I am very comfortable with,” said Prémont. “Besides, following the settlement agreement there was a joint declaration and the Bar is committed to go forward with Khuong’s program, and with due regard to members who voted for her as president.”

Khuong will be keeping a watchful eye on developments, warning that if she is unsatisfied with the progress that she will seek another term. But that may prove harder to do following her settling of accounts before a popular French-language television show where she alleged that some batonniers had problems with the taxman while another needed a chauffeur because he no longer had a driving licence – and the Barreau closed its eyes. She also suggested that former Quebec premier Pierre Marc Johnson, one of the signatories of the letter, would be better off reimbursing taxpayers $200,000 in legal fees that his spouse, the ex-president of the Tribunal administratif du Québec (TAQ), incurred. Hélène de Kovachich was suspended for six months for using TAQ’s budget to pay the legal fees of her lawyer on a personal matter. Khuong also suggested in the television show that “you’d be surprised by the number and names of people” that took part in the non-judicial program for minor offenses.

“I was not very nice with everybody,” chuckled Khuong. “It’s as if there are double standards, depending on who is the president. I gave a couple of examples of situations that took place at the Barreau for which there was no problem and the batonniers were able to keep their jobs. As far as I’m concerned, they did not want me there. So it’s clear that any grounds were good.”

Beaulac was far from impressed by her comments in the show, and believes there may even be grounds for the syndic or investigating officer to conduct an investigation on her for infringing the Quebec Code of Professional Conduct of Lawyers.

“It was surreal,” remarked Beaulac. “What stands out in my mind is that her counter-attacks were exaggerated, vicious, and tarnished reputations through insinuations. It goes completely against the grain of the reasons she offered for her resignation, that is, for the good of the professional corporation.”

This story was originally published in The Lawyers Weekly.

Women make up nearly half of the Quebec Bar’s roll

By 2021 more than half of lawyers in Quebec will be women, reveals the latest annual report of Quebec’s legal society.

At present, women already make up nearly half of the Bar’s Roll of Order, with 11,838 members or 49 per cent of membership, the highest percentage in North America. On average women practising the profession are younger and have less experience than men. The 12,301 men who are currently practising are around 48 years old and have 21.6 years of experience, compared with women who are 41, with 14 years of experience.

Young lawyers, those with less than 10 years of experience, represents 35 per cent of the total membership, according to the Barreau du Québec’s 2011-2012 annual report published earlier this month. And that’s where women are gaining ground on men — women make up 61 per cent of young lawyers.

How and where women practice also differs from men. More than half of men, or 52 per cent, work in private practice, 16 per cent in the public sector and nine per cent in the private sector such as in-house counsel for companies. Women, on the other hand, shun private practice. Barely one-third or 32 per cent work in private practice. Nearly a quarter, or 23 per cent, work in the public sector, 12 per cent in the private sector, and a staggering 30 per cent are on either parental leave or sabbatical or studying.

Quebec’s law society takes bold positions while others remain mum

Quebec’s law society has chutzpah.

Over the past month, it has taken a stance on Bill C-10, the Conservative government’s “tough on crime” omnibus bill, flatly stating that it “does not respond to any real need of the justice system” and pointing out that the crime rate in Canada is at its lowest level since 1973.

The Barreau du Québec took a firm position against the Harper government’s controversial decision to shelve the long-gun registry. It scolded the Conservative government for appointing a unilingual judge to the Supreme Court of Canada. And it is widely credited for forcing Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s hand to grant a public inquiry that will examine corruption in Quebec’s construction industry over a period of 15 years full powers of a public inquiry, including the power to subpoena witnesses and grant them immunity.

“Our interventions were motivated by our resolve to uphold confidence in our institutions,” wrote Claude Provencher, the Barreau’s executive director. “We want to ensure that the means put in place can truly respond to the objectives sought by society.”

Canada’s other law societies have remained silent. The Upper Law Society of Canada has over the past month issued press releases expressing its concern about the security of judges in Brazil and the human rights of lawyers in Iran. The Law Society of British Columbia celebrated excellence in legal journalism, the Law Society of Alberta honoured a lawyer for seventy years of service, the Law Society of Saskatchewan issued notices about the legal profession as did the Law Society of Manitoba. The Law Society of New Brunswick had nothing to say over the past few weeks, and the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador issued practice notes. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society highlighted Movember.