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 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.