Lawyer Viktor Hohots was handed a five-month suspension by the Law Society of Upper Canada on Monday after admitting he failed to adequately represent thousands of Roma refugee claimants between 2009 and 2013.
The sentence prompted several advocates for the Roma to storm out of the meeting calling the sentence a "sham."
"I was appalled," said Mary Jo Leddy, founder of Romero House, a Toronto organization that assists refugees. "It was clear the Law Society had made a deal with the lawyer. It's a suspension too little too late."
In a rare move, Leddy, Legal Aid Ontario and the Canadian Romani Alliance had sought intervenor status at the hearing to allow victim impact statements to be heard by the Law Society's disciplinary panel. That application was rejected.
Ruined thousands of lives
"It's not a just punishment," said Lazlo Sarkozi, a Roma refugee who came to Canada five years ago. He wanted Hohots disbarred. "They might be able to bend laws but they cannot bend justice and this is not justice what just happened.
"These lawyers they ruined thousands of lives and they all had to go back to Hungary where there is massive racism."
Hohots took on more than 5,000 Roma refugee claimants between 2009 and 2013 – almost all Legal Aid cases. He failed to show up for hearings, submit or translate key documents as evidence and he mixed up clients' stories – all of which undermined their accounts of persecution.
Changes needed in complaints process
Complaints about Hohots by Roma refugee claimants were first filed with the Law Society four years ago. Since then, all but one of those complainants have been deported and so were unable to testify at the hearing.
"Honestly, right now, no refugee advocate would even bother with the Law Society," Leddy said. "The process is too long and too weighted in favour of lawyers like Hohots and until and unless they clean up their act, and prove they can seriously discipline misconduct, people will have to find other ways of complaining, criminal court, something like that."
Mary Eberts, a former bencher with the Law Society and who represents Romero House and the Roma community, called for changes in the way the Law Society handles complaints involving vulnerable people such as refugee claimants.
"They are expelled from Canada if they lose their hearings and to have an investigation proceed through three leisurely years is frankly not good enough," said Eberts.
'Failed our most vulnerable people'
Rev. Alexa Gilmour is a United Church minister in Toronto. Her church provided sanctuary for three years for Josef and Timea Pusuma and their daughter who were victims of Hohots. "To see the Law Society working to protect their own … it's mindblowing and so disappointing," she said.
The family was deported last December, shortly before Hohots pleaded guilty.
"What can you tell a family that's been so dragged through. They have been pushed around by people from from this side of the world to the other. I have no words, just sorrow.
"I just feel like we failed our most vulnerable people in the world once again. "We had an opportunity to do what was right and we failed.
At the hearing, Hohots lawyer claimed many of the Roma had shakey stories and even if Hohots had represented them properly, they may not have been accepted as refugees.
"I was appalled," Leddy said. "When the lawyer started trashing these people, who couldn't be there to defend themselves, I just couldn't take it. I couldn't be part of the sham."
Money offered in exchange for good reference
The hearing heard that last month Hohots called Romero House, Leddy's organization, and offered it five thousand dollars in exchange for a letter of support to the Law Society. She refused.
Leddy said she wasn't seeking to have Hohots disbarred. She wanted the Law Society to order Hohots to help those he hurt by going through his files and working to reopen their cases. Instead, she said this suspension does nothing to help them.
"What I was hoping for is we could insist that Mr. Hohots be part of the struggle to bring justice for these thousands of people who have been booted out of this country and have been wandering around trying to find a safe place to live," she said.
"He could have helped us give them a second chance … he could have gone through his files, identified the people who had suffered because of his misconduct and then transferred it over to another lawyer to ensure they got a fair hearing."
Negotiated penalty saved Law Society money
Hohots penalty was negotiated over the past few months by the Law Society and his lawyer, Mitchell Worsoff.
Under it he will be barred from practice for five months and prohibited from handling refugee cases for two years. After that, if he continues to handle refugee claims, his practice will be subject to supervision. He will also have to pay $15,000 for the cost of the hearing.
Lisa Freeman, lawyer for the Law Society, said the sentence is within the range of others handed down to lawyers convicted of fraud and conflict of interest. She said Hohots cooperated with the investigation and showed remorse and that the negotiated penalty saved the Law Society money by not forcing it to hold a lengthy, drawn-out hearing.