The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in an 8-1 decision that a lengthy investigation into misconduct charges against a Saskatchewan lawyer did not amount to an abuse of process.
The case began in 2012, when the Law Society of Saskatchewan audited Prince Albert lawyer Peter V. Abrametz, eventually finding him guilty in 2018 of professional misconduct.
The society found that Abrametz had issued high-interest loans to vulnerable clients. It also found he had been involved in preparing misleading invoices and accounting records in an attempt to hide the checks he had issued to his clients.
Abrametz was disbarred for two years by the law society, although that decision was later stayed.
The lawyer argued that the process had been dragged on for too long, and appealed the decision.
In 2020, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal sided with Abrametz, ruling that the process had taken too long and amounted to an abuse of process.
However, the Supreme Court has overturned that decision, pointing out the law society tribunal had said that the case was very complex, leading to a long investigation.
The ‘primary role’ of the hearing committee was ‘to weigh and assess voluminous quantities of evidence. The Court of Appeal departed from its proper role when it substituted its own findings of fact, notably on the scale and the complexity of the investigation.– Supreme Court of Canada
As well, the law society argued, Abrametz was partially to blame for the long investigation, noting more than a year’s worth of delay was due to his or his lawyer’s unavailability.
The Supreme Court wrote that the Appeal Court had overstepped its bounds and should have followed the law society tribunal’s lead.
“The ‘primary role‘ of the hearing committee was ‘to weigh and assess voluminous quantities of evidence,’ the decision reads.
“The Court of Appeal departed from its proper role when it substituted its own findings of fact, notably on the scale and the complexity of the investigation.”
Any pending sanctions against Abrametz are still considered active and would be dealt with at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.
Abrametz, who was called to the bar in 1973, should not be confused with his son, Peter A. Abrametz, who also practices law in Prince Albert.
Trevor Farrow, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall law school, says the decision means the courts have decided to stick with the status quo when it comes to delays at administrative tribunals.
“I think the court also wanted to send the signal that the delay in itself is not necessarily fatal for a proceeding,” he said.
“It really depends on the context: It depends on the length of the delay, it depends on the source of the delay and it depends on the impact of the delay, on the process and on the parties.”
Delays in court have often been a point of contention in the legal system, with some criminal trials being thrown out because they could not be prosecuted in a timely manner.
Farrow noted that this decision was solely focused on delays in administrative tribunals. He says the court decision respected that delays in the tribunal process were a serious issue, but at the same time did not hinder them with unrealistic expectations.
He says politicians across the country need to look at wait times for tribunals and consider giving them more money.
“If we have these kind of backlogs in an already fully functioning and at-pace system, are we content to simply leave it with those backlogs or do we want to do something about it?” he said.
“And if we want to do something about it, I think that does become a political question.”
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