Thunder Bay

Law society proceeding for suspended Thunder Bay lawyer to resume in November

A disciplinary proceeding involving a suspended Thunder Bay lawyer will be back before the law society next month.

Christopher Watkins temporarily suspended on Oct. 10 at Toronto hearnig

A Law Society of Ontario proceeding involving suspended Thunder Bay lawyer Christopher Watkins will resume next month. (Adam Burns/CBC)

A disciplinary proceeding involving a suspended Thunder Bay, Ont., lawyer will be back before the provincial regulator next month.

Christopher Watkins had his licence to practice law suspended during a Law Society of Ontario tribunal hearing in Toronto on Oct. 10.

The hearing was then temporarily adjourned and the matter is scheduled to resume Nov. 5, during a proceeding management conference, which is an interim step.

The continuation of the hearing itself will then be scheduled.

In documents provided to CBC News, the law society said Watkins "appears to be unable to properly serve his clients," over the past several years.

Watkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

History of failing to attend court

Watkins "has a history of failing to attend at court appearances in criminal proceedings dating to at least 2012," the documents stated, noting that the lawyer's absences have become "more frequent and problematic" since December 2017.

The documents stated the provincial regulator attempted to "get the lawyer to correct these problems," and Watkins gave repeated assurances he was taking steps to rectify things.

However, on Sept. 13, Watkins was cited for contempt for failing to appear in court, and "multiple bench warrants were released against his clients due to his continued failures to appear."

Watkins also failed to provide a complete response to the law society as it investigated his conduct, the documents stated. Several of his clients also alleged that Watkins failed to "adequately communicate with them, leaving them in the dark or providing faulty information about their court dates."

Previously disciplined

The law society also noted that Watkins — who was called to the bar in 1995 — was disciplined in 2001 for "a variety of professional misconduct."

That included acting in a conflict of interest, failing to adequately serve two clients and allowing deceptive affidavits to be filed with the court, and "making an agreement with Crown witnesses to essentially pay them in exchange for getting them to sign a document supporting the withdrawal of the charges," the law society documents stated.

Watkins received a 15-day suspension, and was ordered to participate in a practice review and take a course on legal ethics.

Watkins also "narrowly avoided" a finding of contempt of court in 2012, the documents showed. He was scheduled to attend a full-day preliminary inquiry in Dryden on Apr. 13 of that year, but submitted a "misleading application" to have that adjourned.

In the application, Watkins claimed he had provincial offences trials in Thunder Bay on that date. Watkins did have some matters scheduled for Thunder Bay court, but they were not trials, according to the law society's documents.

At his contempt hearing, Watkins stated one of his clerks had failed to enter the date of the preliminary inquiry into his calendar, and he mistakenly thought the matters scheduled for Thunder Bay court on April 13, 2012, were trials.

In the end, he was found to have shown negligence, but the court ruled Watkins's actions weren't deliberate. He was acquitted of contempt of court.

'Risk of harm' to the public

As for Watkins's more-recent conduct, the law society stated "there are reasonable grounds for believing that the lawyer's continued practice represents a significant risk of harm to the public and to the administration of justice."

By repeatedly failing to attend scheduled court appearances, Watkins is "putting his clients at risk of being arrested under bench warrants, delaying their proceedings, wasting judicial resources, disrespecting both clients and judges and haming public confidence in the judicial system and in the competence of the legal profession," the law society said.

"At this stage in the investigations, it is unclear whether the lawyer's failures to attend are due to health problems, poor organization, other issues, or a combination of factors. But regardless, the bottom line is that the lawyer is not attending court when he needs to, to the detriment of his clients and the administration of justice."

The law society is seeking to suspend Watkins's licence to practice law, or restrict how he can practice.

With files from Jeff Walters