Prominent Yellowknife lawyer faces disciplinary hearing

The hearing revolved around whether Peter Harte, a defence lawyer, had erred in not telling the mother of a 15-year-old witness that her son was taking time off school to testify in court.

Peter Harte questioned for not informing mother of witness that son was to testify

A prominent Yellowknife lawyer had to answer accusations that he acted unprofessionally when dealing with an adolescent witness, during a disciplinary hearing on Thursday.

Peter Harte could be fined up to $2,000, if the Law Society of the Northwest Territories concludes that his actions "did not reflect favourably on the legal profession." 

The hearing revolved around whether Harte, a defence lawyer, had erred in not telling the mother of a 15-year-old witness that her son was taking time off school to testify at a trial involving his father, Harte's client. 

"It was incumbent on Mr. Harte to take steps to ensure [the boy's] custodial parent [his mother] was aware he would testify," argued the society's lawyer Molly Naber-Sykes.

Harte did not speak in his own defence, but the lawyer representing him vehemently disputed this line of argument.

Harte had "no legal or procedural duty" to tell the mother, said Mona Duckett. "The fact of custody does not give [the mother] some right to have been told."

"We do not discipline lawyers for not taking a step that might appease a member of the public," she added.

A sensitive case

The 2015 case was a particularly sensitive one involving serious allegations within the family.

The mother didn't find out her son had testified in court until afterwards, and then only by accident: an acquaintance had been at the courthouse that day.

Both sides at the hearing agreed that Harte had been acting in his client's best interest when he approached the 15-year-old and asked him to testify. However, the society thought Harte should have encouraged the boy to tell his mother he would be testifying, or given the mother a call the morning the boy was to appear in court.   

Duckett, in contrast, argued that the young man could have told his mother himself: "We have a young man capable of making decisions… mature enough not to be harmed by the experience."

"To say in retrospect that [Harte] could have done something different that would have made someone happier… does not justify sanction," she added.

Maintaining public confidence

Disciplinary hearings like this are fairly common — around five or six happen in the N.W.T. each year, according to Donna Allen, the Law Society's executive director.

They can be sparked by a complaint from the public, other lawyers or an investigation started by the society. Some cases examine overt cases of malpractice. Others, like this one, involve more intricate questions of whether a lawyer's actions have reflected badly on the profession.

"One of the things that we as a regulatory body want to ensure is that the public has confidence in the legal profession and in how they practice," explained Allen.

"It is somewhat subjective, often. Clearly in very serious violations, that standard is going to be much easier to assess than something that's a bit more nebulous." 

The adjudicator who heard Thursday's case now has to make a decision, which will be delivered in the next few weeks.