Ottawa lawyer Luc Barrick was disbarred in October, 2013, but clients and many in Ottawa's legal community wonder why it took the Law Society of Upper Canada so long to act.
Barrick was an up-and-coming lawyer and a prominent figure in the local Conservative circles when he formed the firm of Barrick Poulsen in 2004. He once stood for the Conservative Party of Canada in Ottawa-Vanier, coming second to Liberal Mauril Belanger.
But Barrick had expensive tastes and he began helping himself to clients’ money.
Eventually he was called before a Law Society disciplinary panel, which found he had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars left in trust with his firm Barrick, Domay, Tannis LLP, which he formed after Barrick Poulsen was dissolved.
Lawyer Ernest G. Tannis worked alongside the younger Barrick in the new firm and said he considered himself a mentor. But he said he soon began noticing problems.
“I know from my own experience. I had attempted to warn many people. But those warnings weren't listened to,” said Tannis.
Looting trust accounts
In one instance, about $200,000 vanished from the firms trust account. Two business partners had given Barrick the money in trust to finance a real estate operation.
The Law Society’s disciplinary panel found that Barrick had drained the account. “The panel has found that the $200,000 deposit was misappropriated by Mr. Barrick. The evidence shows that the $200,000 was deposited in the trust account. That specific amount was not withdrawn at any time and was not returned to the clients to whom it belonged. It should have remained in the trust account.”
“There is obvious proof of the misappropriation of the money,“ the panel found.
The Law Society panel also found that Barrick had taken more than $70,000 left by a father as an inheritance for his teenage daughter.
Other members of the law firm were blameless, said the ruling. “(Barrick) was the only person controlling the Barricks LLP trust account.”
The Law Society panel found that Barrick had also taken money left in trust by numerous other clients, and had been removing trust funds for personal use since at least 2009.
Barrick Leaves Canada
By the time Barrick was disbarred, he had already left Canada, leaving behind a wife and two children. He is believed to be in France, where he holds citizenship.
Some former clients and associates said he should have been stopped much earlier.
One former law partner, who still practices law in Ottawa, told CBC that he reported Barrick for misappropriation of trust funds years before the Law Society called him before a disciplinary panel.
The former partner said the Law Society assigned an investigator to look into the claims, but Barrick was not disciplined and was allowed to return the money, claiming it had been a misunderstanding.
Questioning the system
Some clients also said they felt Barrick had cheated them by charging for work he never performed. One was the Canadian Council for the Blind, a charity set up in 1944 by blind World War II veterans.
After contracting Barrick to perform some legal work on a block fee basis, the CCB says it discovered that he had not done the work. The charity’s executive director Jim Prowse said Barrick wasn’t returning phone calls. Instead, he sent new bills for services he had never been asked to perform.
The charity refused to pay. But Barrick took the Canadian Council of the Blind to the assessments court, a special tribunal where lawyers can take billing disputes with customers.
In this case as in at least one other assessment case that he won, Barrick was represented by Paul Lepsoe, formerly the chief lawyer of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Prowse said the charity felt outgunned in assessments court.
“You’re up against an expert doing something they do on a regular basis, and this is your first experience. It’s intimidating for the average person, compared to the lawyer who has the system down pat and walks through it. We didn’t feel we had a fair hearing.”
Charity ordered to pay lawyer
Lepsoe and Barrick prevailed in the case, and the charity was ordered to pay Barrick the disputed money.
The Canadian Council for the Blind subsequently won a judgement against Barrick in Small Claims Court, but by that time he had left the country.
Prowse said one aspect of the hearing troubled him in particular.
“We wanted to have his former partner Ernie Tannis testify,” says Prowse. ”He knew all the details. But we weren’t allowed to have him testify on our behalf in this hearing. He was going to testify that Luc did not do the work. And who would be better to know that than someone in is his own office? So I can’t understand why we didn’t get that. It makes me question the system.”
Tannis said he’s also questioning a system that leaves the legal profession to police itself.
“A number of countries are moving into arms-length self-discipline bodies, and it seems to be working quite well. And there’s a reason for it.”
Tannis said he hopes the profession’s self-regulating bodies are examining what happened in this case.
“Every institution has problems. If you look around, you’ll see VIA Rail and OC Transpo checking what went wrong... every discipline, transportation, medical: ‘What went wrong?’”
“Well, to me the Luc Barrick file really should be looked at from beginning to end. I think that would be helpful for everybody. We should all ask this question: Should the Law Society continue to be a self-governing body?”