LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER
The 22-year career of a prominent Sikh lawyer and member of the Order of Canada was snuffed out in less than 15 minutes yesterday – the time it took a disciplinary panel to find T. Sher Singh guilty of professional misconduct.
The Law Society of Upper Canada committee drummed Singh out of the profession on his 58th birthday. But the Guelph lawyer and long-time race relations advocate was not on hand to witness his disbarment and had no legal representation at the hearing.
“I don’t know how to deal with this. I can’t deal with it,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Singh said he was “burnt out” from more than 20 years of combined stresses, including the litigation process with its seemingly never-ending court battles, his involvement in numerous community organizations and the rigours of being a single parent.
But Kitchener resident Cathleen Adams, a social worker at the Community Care Access Centre in Guelph, had little patience for her former lawyer yesterday.
“I want to do my part to make sure Mr. Singh cannot act in our province as a lawyer,” she told the panel convened in Toronto.
Testifying over the telephone from Guelph, Adams said she and her husband each paid Singh $1,500 to mediate their separation issues in 2005, but he never followed through on a promise to draw up a formal separation agreement and ignored subsequent calls.
Leaving them in the lurch has cost them untold dollars and stress, said Adams.
Singh was a member of the Ontario Police Commission and a 1989 provincial task force on race relations and policing.
On Monday, he said he had assumed the misconduct complaints against him were resolved more than a year ago, when he notified the law society by letter that he was resigning his membership. “I tried desperately … to tell them, for health reasons, they needed to bear with me,” he said.
“I asked them not to suspend me, to give me time. They absolutely refused … and I finally threw up my hands.”
But disciplinary panel members James Caskey and Nicholas Pustina, both lawyers, along with Baljit Sikand, a Toronto limo company owner who serves as a law society “lay bencher,” were told that Singh was not eligible to resign because the disciplinary process was already underway.
The panel also accepted a book of documents from disciplinary counsel Lisa Freeman, showing the law society sent letters to Singh, at his law office and a post office box for more than a year.
The law society was trying to obtain his response to allegations that he failed to serve clients, mishandled trust funds, misappropriated $2,000 from a client and continued to practise after being suspended in November 2005, the hearing was told.
Six of Singh’s former clients testified yesterday, among them Charu Shankar, who hired him in 2005 to draw up a marital separation agreement.
She sought out Singh because he was well regarded and recommended by a friend.
“Mr. Singh was a respected member of the community,” Shankar said. “He received the Order of Canada. He seemed to be a public figure. I thought I could trust a lawyer like Mr. Singh.”
Shankar said the situation was urgent because she was unemployed and needed financial support from her husband while she looked for a job. But Shankar said that after she gave Singh $3,000 as a retainer, he did no work on her case, except send an introductory letter to her husband. Singh ignored most of her phone messages and emails, failed to return her money and never provided her with an account, she said.
After Singh was suspended by the law society in Nov. 15, he was ordered to repay $4,000 to Virginia Bodendistel, who hired him in connection with a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Testifying by phone from Halifax, where she was vacationing, Bodendistel told the panel yesterday that she’s never seen the money.
Singh told the Star he represented Bodendistel and her son free of charge in the case for several years. The money was meant to cover only out-of-pocket expenditures, of which there were many, he said on Monday, adding the terms of their “contingency agreement” stipulated that his fees would be paid out of any settlement.
“I personally feel the best work I have done in the last 20 years was on that file,” he said. “If anything, and I say this with the utmost humility, if anything, I deserve a medal.”
Although the case meant going up against a large downtown law firm , Singh said he won several preliminary motions “despite heavy odds” against him. Singh was invested as a member of the Order of Canada on Aug. 31, 2002. The citation from the Governor General’s office said the honour was in recognition of his “vast record of public service,” including his work promoting harmony among people of different races and religions.
The citation, which mentioned his freelance commentaries for the Star and other media, called him “a symbol” of the importance of mediation and understanding in society.
Caskey said the panel will release written reasons for its decision within 30 days.