Former U of M law dean disbarred

Jonathan Black-Branch’s name has been struck from the registry of lawyers who are licensed to practise in Manitoba.

The Law Society of Manitoba announced the ex-dean of law’s disbarment in a notice Monday.

Black-Branch, who oversaw Robson Hall between 2016 and 2020, was found to have filed more than 200 questionable expense claims to the University of Manitoba.

“With a case of this notoriety, it’s important that the public understands that, regardless of the position that somebody holds, they will be held to account,” said Leah Kosokowsky, chief executive officer of the law society.

Details of his wide-ranging misconduct as a society bencher — Manitoba’s only law dean is automatically appointed to the professional college’s governing board — were revealed during a series of unusual disciplinary proceedings late last year.

The defendant did not participate in any of them.

Black-Branch was found to have repeatedly breached his duty of integrity, per a ruling issued on Dec. 15 in which a disciplinary panel categorized his actions as “fraud.”

The panelists, two lawyers (Grant Mitchell and Wendy Stewart) and a public representative (Susan Boulter) ordered Black-Branch to be disbarred. He must pay $36,000, a rough estimate of the proceeding costs.

“The panel sees no alternative,” they wrote in a decision submitted Feb. 14.

“The only sufficient penalty to meet the purposes of the Legal Profession Act and code of professional conduct is disbarment of the member and that his name be struck off the rolls and we so order.”

The six-page document cites the large number of occasions of breach of integrity in the case, the member’s misuse of others’ money for his own purposes and the scheming required to do so, and his failure to recognize his behaviour was morally wrong.

“(There was a) complete lack of any attempt to argue for mitigation of the penalty,” the panelists noted.

Black-Branch did not respond to the panel’s communication about the guilty ruling, either.

Among their most egregious findings was that Black-Branch used roughly $500,000 in university funds to bolster his resumé by completing U.S. Ivy League courses.

Both a school audit, a key piece of evidence, and the law society’s disciplinary panel concluded he frequently billed his employer for personal dinner and drink tabs at a ritzy members-only social club.

Black-Branch also set up a donation of $75,000 to the International Society of Law and Nuclear Disarmament — an organization that he ran, although he never disclosed that to the U of M.

The now-disbarred lawyer, who researches nuclear treaties, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. He is believed to be living in the U.K.

Kosokowsky said she is confident the panel had “extensive evidence” to justify its decision. “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t provide any explanation for his conduct,” she said.

Black-Branch, who represented himself after an 11th-hour decision to fire his attorney, sought to delay the hearings on multiple occasions.

He was initially successful in postponing the case, which officially opened in 2021, citing vague mental health concerns.

The panel proceeded on Sept. 20 after he continued to provide insufficient documentation.

The disbarment was announced almost four years after the ex-dean’s five-year leadership contract at U of M was mysteriously cut short.

The new law dean, Richard Jochelson, said faculty and staff members have been coming to terms with how their former colleague governed himself and the latest development provides both relief and resignation.

Jochelson said the public proceedings provided an explanation for a series of new “safeguards” related to filing expenses and budget processes at the university.

“If I'm going to engage in spending, even if it’s something as simple as purchasing a convocation robe so I can attend graduation, I can't just go out and buy it. I have to actually get pre-approval from someone who’s a level higher than me,” he said, adding the updated protocols can be tedious but they allow for real-time checks and balances.

Deans can no longer approve their own expenses, receive approvals from subordinates or accept invoices directly. Senior administration has also started doing quarterly reviews of dean budgets.

While noting his predecessor’s misconduct and its fallout gave him pause when considering accepting the deanship in 2021, Jochelson said the crisis has prompted better collaboration with stakeholders including the law society and local bar association.

He added: “I was reluctant to do it but I have to say that I’ve really found that the law community has, to their great credit and I’m very grateful for this, has lifted us up and really embraced a renewed Robson Hall.”

The Winnipeg Police Service financial crimes unit is investigating the incidents that led the university to cut ties with Black-Branch.

Disbarred lawyers have won appeals for reinstatement in the past by providing proof they have reformed their character in the decade following their ejection from the society.

A successful candidate must settle all fines and costs owed to the society, present their case to the disciplinary committee, and take full ownership for the conduct that led to their disciplinary hearing.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press