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Human rights tribunal gags law student, legal profession regulator

Student alleges Law Society of B.C. entry questions discriminate

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B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal has gagged both the province's legal profession regulator and a law student who claims the regulator's entry requirements are discriminatory.

Malcolm Brown filed a complaint against the Law Society of B.C. with the tribunal alleging its admissions process discriminates against those with mental health issues - a concern he asserts the society was told to address years ago.

B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal has gagged both the province's legal profession regulator and a law student who claims the regulator's entry requirements are discriminatory.

Malcolm Brown filed a complaint against the Law Society of B.C. with the tribunal alleging its admissions process discriminates against those with mental health issues - a concern he asserts the society was told to address years ago.

"The Law Society of B.C. is the main culprit who has been stigmatizing mental health from the top down in the legal profession in B.C. for decades and has an absolutely toxic effect on the well being of law students and lawyers in B.C.," Brown said.

The 35-year-old Victoria man is in the final stages of his legal education with a desire to practice business or technology law. The self-described technology geek said he's worked in many business types and wants to combine his life experiences in a legal practice.

He's wrestled with alcoholism, spent months in a rehab centre and managed to get through most of law school with one brief relapse. He's been sober five years.

However, to finish his legal education, a final step is a practicum position with a law firm, a position known as articling.

But, he's hit a wall with the process used by the society charged with licencing B.C. lawyers and overseeing their practices.

And now both sides have been gagged as of Oct. 1 after the society complained about Brown sharing complaint documents with Glacier Media. He asserts he did not violate tribunal rules; however, he can't share anything moving forward.

Brown was approved for articles by the society but only after two firms offered and then withdrew jobs after he says he disclosed mental health issues and decade-old issues in the criminal justice system.

The issue, Brown said, is questions the society asks on the articling admission form under the Law Society Admission Program.

It's a year-long process before a new lawyer is called to the bar. It involves months with a law firm or other legal workplace, a 10-week training course and two qualification exams.

The questions ask about health issues, including mental health ones involving substance abuse, as well as past criminal justice system involvements. They're designed to assess a candidate's fitness and character to become a lawyer. It's all part of the society's mandate to regulate the profession in the public interest.

Brown, however, asserts the society was told to stop asking such questions eight years ago by the very same tribunal from which he now seeks redress.

And, he's quite open about his mental health issues and addiction treatment. As well, he's up front about an assault charge he says was expunged from his record. Another charge was dropped.

He asks why the law society isn't interested in the constitutional assumption of innocence.

Indeed, he said, those experiences with the system influenced his desire to become a lawyer.

"I know that things are not always as they appear, and the legal system doesn't always work the way it should," he said. "These are important things that wealthy, conservative-type people never understand."

Brown said he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his education and has been suicidal.

Now, he's quit law school after articling positions were offered and then withdrawn after he disclosed past issues to prospective employers on the advice of a lawyer.

He says he called that lawyer, University of British Columbia Faculty of Law adjunct professor Henry Wood, at the suggestion of Tony Wilson, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Law School in Kamloops, who also sits on the law society's board.

Both Wood and Wilson are law school ethics professors.

"Tony put a big emphasis on the importance of full disclosure during the law society credentials process and went to great lengths to explain how we students needed to disclose any criminal charges or health issues we may have," Brown said. "He announced in class that if anyone thought they needed to answer these questions affirmatively, that they should talk to him personally after class."

Brown took Wilson's advice.

"Henry spent pretty much all his time telling me that it was absolutely crucial for me to tell law firms this information up front," Brown said.

So he did. And, he said, job offers were then withdrawn, one at the firm of Lindsay LLP, a partner in which is now-retired past law society president Jan Lindsay. The other was at the Victoria firm of Velletta & Company.

"It is inappropriate for me to publically comment on this at all," said Wilson, whose TRU biography says he chairs the society's committee studying the articling program.

"My dealings with any client are confidential," Wood said. "I have no comment."

Lindsay LLP did not respond to a request for comment.

Velletta & Company did not respond to a request for comment.

Brown provided Glacier Media both his complaint and the Sept. 12 society response filed with the tribunal by Vancouver lawyer Patricia Gallivan.

Glacier sought confirmation of the documents' veracity from the society, the tribunal and Gallivan.

Tribunal registrar Steven Adamson said third party privacy prevented disclosure of records. They are available 90 days prior to hearings, he said.

"According to the tribunal's rules, there is no access to information available in these circumstances," Adamson said.

Law society spokesperson Vinnie Yuen confirmed, "The law society has filed a response to the complaint of Mr. Brown, but it would be inappropriate to comment further as the matter is before the tribunal."

Gallivan's partner Paul Pulver, a lawyer at labour and employment specialist law firm Pulver Crawford Munroe LLP, took a slightly different tack from Adamson when asked to verify documents, citing tribunal rules saying public access to a complaint file is restricted unless released under a B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request.

Glacier Media does have a request filed with the society. It has yet to receive a response.

Key to Brown's complaint, he asserts, is that the tribunal told the society in 2011 to stop asking for similar information on articling documents. Such orders have the same force as those from the BC Supreme Court.

There, Peter Mokua Gichuru complained about a law society articling question: "Have you ever been treated for schizophrenia, paranoia or a mood disorder described as a major affective illness, bipolar mood disorder or manic depressive illness?" Gichuru alleged the question was discriminatory and was interfering with his ability secure an articling position.

A tribunal case summary says Gichuru had a history of depression.

"The law society then asked a lot of intrusive and irrelevant questions about his mental health to see if he was 'fit' to become a lawyer," the summary said. "Gichuru was in a very vulnerable position with the law society. He was at the very start of his legal career. Decisions of the law society can have a significant effect on a lawyer. There was a power imbalance."

The tribunal found the society intruded on Gichuru's personal and medical autonomy with long-lasting discrimination. "Mr. Gichuru felt anxiety each time he had to have contact with the Law Society, both before and after he became a lawyer," the summary said.

As a result, the law society changed its question to be less intrusive.

No hearing dates for Brown's case have been set.

jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

@jhainswo

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