Former Halifax lawyer sexually harassed colleagues, kept porn at work

Eric Durnford, a prominent former labour and employment lawyer in Halifax, sexually harassed six colleagues and stored porn at his offices despite multiple warnings about his behaviour, according to an investigation by the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society.

Durnford, who retired from his firm last year, consented on Nov. 21 to a reprimand from the society, admitting to unbecoming and professional misconduct, including unwelcome touching of other lawyers and legal assistants.

cba.org

His behaviour over the course of eight years contributed to the resignation of four women.

An investigation started in 2018 after a lawyer who had worked with Durnford filed a complaint alleging he sexually harassed her over the course of five years until 2015. The woman had been an associate and Durnford had power over the advancement of her career.

The barristers' society reprimand says Durnford touched the woman inappropriately, invaded her space and made "inappropriate and unwelcome and sexually suggestive comments." He also gave her gifts and commented on how she looked. The behaviour caused "significant discomfort and emotional stress" to his colleague, whom he continued to work with until 2018.

As the law society looked into the complaint, people brought up other allegations of harassment and discrimination against women. They involved two other lawyers and three legal assistants between 2014 and 2018.

The investigation found Durnford also touched them inappropriately, invaded their space "to the point of significant discomfort and emotional distress" and directed "inappropriate and unwelcome sexualized and sexually suggestive comments and materials" at those coworkers when "he knew or ought to have known" it would cause stress.

Over the years, Durnford represented some of Nova Scotia's largest employers, including the province, Clearwater Seafoods, the Queen Elizabeth Health Sciences Centre, Canada Post and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. 

In 1989, he also acted for CBC News in a dispute with its union over an article in its collective agreement.

Durnford wasn't a stranger to discussions of workplace misconduct. In 2015, he was a panellist at an Employment Law Alliance talk about "Workplace Indecencies and Indiscretions."

CBC

Meanwhile, a number of times over the years, Durnford was warned about his own behaviour and faced disciplinary actions at the firms where he was a partner.

The complaints investigation committee also found people addressed Durnford's "inappropriateness and unprofessionalism" with him at least five times between 2011 and 2017, and that five times he stored pornographic material at work despite attempts by his firms to curb that behaviour.

According to the barristers' society reprimand, Durnford has been in counselling for four years to learn about better boundaries with women. When he admitted wrongdoing, he also "expressed sincere apology" to the women and the society. 

Due to the findings, the society stated he should formally retire from the profession.

Durnford was called to the bar in 1970, practising with McInnes, Cooper & Robertson for nearly four decades prior to forming Ritch Durnford in 2008. He formed a second law firm, Barteaux Durnford, in 2015. 

A month after the society started investigating, Durford agreed to stop practising law and he retired from Barteaux Durnford on Dec. 1, 2018.

Barteaux Durnford changed its name to Barteaux Labour and Employment Lawyers in September, according to the provincial Registry of Joint Stocks.

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