Law society discovers 'systemic weaknesses' in protecting Indigenous people from unscrupulous lawyers

The Law Society of Upper Canada is reviewing its approach to handling complaints from Indigenous people who say they have been misrepresented by lawyers.

A recent case involving a lawyer from Kenora, Ont., "exposed serious systemic issues" in the law society's regulatory and hearing process when to comes to dealing with Indigenous complainants, according to a news release issued by the law society on Tuesday.

"We're being open and honest, that we, at the law society have a lot to learn from this experience," said law society treasurer Paul Schabas. "We're going to reach out to the [Indigenous] community to get that help so we can restore trust with them."

The case involved allegations from more than a dozen residential school survivors who alleged lawyer Doug Keshen, mishandled their claims, arranged high-interest loans for clients against anticipated settlement funds and transferred thousands of dollars from clients to himself.

Misconduct hearings began last summer and went on for months. At one point, Keshen filed his own complaint against the law society. Neither the law society, nor Keshen would reveal the details of that complaint.

The hearings came to an abrupt end on Tuesday when Keshen and the law society agreed to participate in a separate process called an Invitation to Attend. Through it, the parties came to a mutual agreement for Keshen to have his work regularly reviewed by the law society.

"The case did not unfold as expected and the outcome of supervisory conditions was the only viable option," Schabas said in a news release.

'Entirely cleared'

It's also not clear how mutual the agreement is. Schabas said it addresses "past lapses and mistakes" made by Keshen, but, for his part, Keshen balked at the suggestion he made mistakes that amount to misconduct.

"That's not accurate," Keshen told CBC News in an interview on Tuesday. "We all make mistakes, we are all human.

"Not a single allegation — and there were numerous — not a single allegation has been established," he added.

But Schabas said the Invitation to Attend process only occurs "when we believe misconduct has occurred. It's a form of diversion for us for conduct that needs to be addressed."

Keshen denied any misconduct and quibbled with the idea he had made mistakes worthy of discipline.

"I've always admitted that I make mistakes," he told CBC News. "We are all human we make mistakes."

A Superior Court ruling from July 20, 2016, stated that Keshen had conceded he had helped obtain high-interest loans for clients in contravention of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

It leaves residential school survivors feeling they have nowhere to turn when they feel they've been mistreated by the legal system, according to survivor and advocate Garnet Angeconeb.

Survivors 'revictimized'

Angeconeb was not a complainant in the case against Keshen but was close with some of the survivors who had testified against the lawyer during the disciplinary hearings.

The law society took too long to resolve the complaints against Keshen and, in the process, "revictimized" residential school survivors, he said.

"Really it's about restitution for monies survivors feel they lost through the system and they didn't see that," Angeconeb said. "So it's frustrating, people are demoralized, and really, how do they even begin to heal when they've taken a few steps back now?"

Angeconeb said he is happy to hear that the law society is willing to learn from this experience, but he will take his guidance from other survivors when it comes to making a decision on whether to engage with the regulatory body in the future.