The Quebec Bar Association (the Barreau du Québec) is seeking the legal right to automatically suspend lawyers facing serious criminal charges in connection with the exercise of their profession. The barreau expects to draft a Bill in conjunction with Quebec’s Office of Professions for the government to introduce in the legislature in 2014. The move is a response to the events of May 9, 2013, which saw three lawyers arrested and charged by the anti-corruption unit. These lawyers are under investigation for professional misconduct by the Syndic of the Quebec Bar Association (the bar’s disciplinary board).
One of these lawyers has already resigned from the bar, but two are still members and can continue to practise law, even though they have confessed to committing dishonourable acts to the Charbonneau Corruption Inquiry.
The President of the Quebec Bar Association, Johanne Brodeur, told Le Journal de Montréal, “The presumption of innocence is important, but there is also zero tolerance.” Meaning the public trust in the legal system is in jeopardy and that relationship of trust must be protected at all costs, which is the primary mission of the Barreau du Québec. Thus, the barreau must ensure the discipline of the legal profession, respect of ethics and the proficiency of its members and of the people who want to join its ranks.
Currently, the barreau is unable to exercise any recourse whatsoever against lawyers accused of crimes. The Bar Association has to wait until the Syndic investigates and the disciplinary committee decides the culprits should be punished.
Consequently, the bar association is seeking the right to suspend lawyers accused of serious crimes for the duration of the investigative and disciplinary process. Brodeur hopes the government will also give this right to Quebec’s other professional regulatory bodies.
Given the nature of the present charges of corruption against these lawyers—and their confessions to misconduct—it seems unreasonable not to give the barreau (and other regulatory bodies) the power to suspend its members’ licences, at least temporarily, while an investigation or criminal trial is underway. Society must trust that those citizens who practise law are also following the law and not exploiting it or flouting it for their gain. The same is true of public officials, engineers, health practitioners, and other professionals in positions of trust.
These lawyers certainly knew that they were contravening the barreau’s professional code and code of ethics, not to mention the law. As lawyers, they certainly should have known better, but they actively broke the confidence placed in them. They will undoubtedly face punishment for their actions, but how can justice be served if they are allowed to continue to provide legal services in the meantime?
On the other hand, as the president of the barreau acknowledges, it is important to presume individuals are innocent until a court finds them guilty. No doubt that is the main barrier between the barreau and the power it is seeking to automatically suspend its members pending serious criminal investigations. What happens when a suspended lawyer is found innocent? Is it fair to deprive an innocent person of his or her ability to earn a living pending an investigation of indeterminate length? It will be interesting to see how the Quebec Bar Association and the Office of Professions deal with these issues when they release their proposed Bill.