A local lawyer who had disciplinary charges against him stayed last week said it was like a dark cloud had lifted.
For Peter V. Abrametz, also known as Peter Abrametz Senior, it was the end to one part of a years-long dispute between himself and the Law Society of Saskatchewan, which began investigating him for professional misconduct as early as 2012.
An Appeals Court ruling dated last Friday stayed the proceedings, citing an “inordinate delay” in proceedings “that constituted an abuse of process.”
Abrametz was found guilty of four counts of professional misconduct in January of 2018, six years after the investigation into his practice began.
The lawyer was not the subject of a public complaint, rather, the Law Society launched its own investigation after finding Abrametz’s legal partner, Kristian Eggum, guilty of similar offences.
Abrametz was found guilty of withdrawing trust funds for payment in a manner contrary to law society rules, causing trust cheques to be issued to a fictitious person for the purpose of transferring funds to himself, failing to maintain proper books had records in relation to his legal practice and entering into a debtor/creditor relationship with clients when their interests were in conflict.
Abrametz was not found guilty of misappropriating client funds.
In 2019, the Law Society disbarred Abrametz for two years. That disbarment was later stayed pending the outcome of the appeal decision released Friday.
With last Friday’s ruling, Abrametz will be able to continue to his practice unhindered. Aside from the 2012 complaint, he has not been cited for a single misconduct infraction in the decades he has practised.
Friday’s ruling was authored by Justice Barrington-Foote, with Justices Leurer and Otenbreit concurring.
In it, he wrote that “to err is human, however the facts, in this case, tell a troubling and disappointing story about a regulator that should, given its mandate, resources and composition, be a model for others.”
He noted that Abrametz had not misconducted himself in any way in the six years that had passed since the law society ordered he practice under the supervision of other Prince Albert lawyers.
The decision also said that delay alone cannot be enough to stay or overturn a decision. Rather, it must also result in “personal prejudice … of such a magnitude that the public’s sense of decency and fairness would be offended.”
The decision recounted the many twists and turns of the case that began in 2012. They found significant gaps in time where the law society as unable to account for what it was doing during that time. Discounting delays attributed to the process or to Abrametz himself, the justices ruled that the initial investigator on the case “either chose or was obligated to do other things. Lack of resources,” they said, “cannot justify the inordinate delay.”
There was no evidence, they said that the investigation and prosecution were complex enough to explain away a 22-month delay.
They found that an average of 40 hours per year was spent on the case. The justices figured the report prepared by the Law Society investigator, which is attributed to much of the delays, should have been done by June of 2013, not 15 months later.
The 12 months it took to issue a formal complaint following that report, justice Barrington-Foote wrote, were “equally troubling.”
While there were — and are — other ongoing law society investigations into Abrametz, the court determined that it appeared as if a decision was made to “languish” on those other issues rather than to move forward with the charges they did eventually lay at the same time.
Further, they said, the investigator’s records show he spent only a few hours per month on the file.
“Although there may have been a reasonable explanation as to why he was unable to do more, it was not provided,” Barrington-Foote wrote.
He attributed 32.5 months of the 53 month period to an undue delay caused by the law society.
Abrametz had applied to the law society’s committee for a stay in proceedings due to the delay.
They denied that application.
That conclusion by the law society, Barrington-Foote wrote, “was the result of the palpable and overriding errors … and its failure to correctly apply the law to the facts.”
The delay did not overshoot what might have been considered appropriate by a little bit. Rather, he wrote, “It so grossly exceeded the inherent requirements of this case as to be clearly unacceptable.”
As for harm suffered by Abrametz, Barrington-Foote pointed to knowledge other lawyers in prince Albert and Abrametz’s own staff had of the ongoing investigation. It was also, he wrote, posted on the law society’s website.
Abrametz “practiced under a cloud of suspicion” for over four years, “suffered as a result of both the allegations and investigation (lasting) far longer than it would have.”
Abrametz testified that it caused stress at home and that his staff worried about their futures as well.
Barrington-Foote also found that the law society’s ruling discounted the fact that during that time, Abrametz was forced to practice under intrusive conditions. He said their evidence that Abrametz chose and agreed to those conditions was a false choice, as his other choice was to give up practicing law altogether.
Lastly, he ruled that the Law Society overstated the seriousness of Abrametz’s charges.
He did not misappropriate funds. He had no prior record of misconduct, had practiced under supervision without incident for four years and wasn’t subject to any complaints.
“By any reasonable measure, the delay that occurred was unacceptable,” Barrington-Foote wrote.
By the time the disciplinary hearing was conducted, Abrametz had already “paid a heavy price” Barrington-Foote said, both in terms of the ruling itself and in the years of supervision placed on his practice. The public’s interest in enforcement, he wrote, “had been well-served.”
For all these reasons, the ongoing disciplinary process was stayed.
Reached by phone Friday, Abrametz said he was relieved to have the process over and done with.
“Ther’s been a very black cloud over my head for eight years and the law society has pursued me relentlessly,” he said.
He pointed to the court of appeal’s ruling, that the case “tells a troubling and disappointing story.
“Things went off the rails with the law society I am comforted the court of appeal recognized that,” he said.
Abrametz said he’s proud that he’s never had a client bring forward a complaint against him, and that he is happy to be able to carry on and keep practicing law in Prince Albert.
“I will continue to serve my clients as I have. I believe I provided excellent service … and will continue to do so. I am a great asset to the public in terms of the specialized work I do and it’s unfortunate their view was so narrow and restrictive.”
For their part, the law society said it’s working to ensure it can proceed with investigations more promptly going forward.
They said they’re working to hire a new hearing administrator, including case management to allow them to move more quickly. That, they said will go a long way to address concerns raised by the Court of Appeal.
“There are still matters pending investigation in relation to Mr. Abrametz. Those matters have been mentioned by the Court and aspects of those investigations are still before the Court. As such the Law Society is not in a position to provide a full comment about this matter,” the law society said in a statement.
“We recognize and respect the Court’s oversight role and understand the concerns raised by the Court in connection with the timeliness of the investigation phase of this matter and the timeline generally. We acknowledge that faster is better and actively engage in best efforts when it comes to matters like these. Unfortunately, faster is not always possible when dealing with large forensic investigations and other complex issues like the ones that arose in the Abrametz case. The nature of the conduct in question in this case created complications during the investigation phase. The complications associated with this matter continued through the prosecution phase which included several applications to the Court of Queen’s Bench and several preliminary motions before the Law Society Hearing Committee. All of these complications served to expand the timeframe needed to bring this matter to hearing.
“Throughout the course of these processes, the Law Society remained deeply concerned about the conduct of Mr. Abrametz and the Law Society viewed it to be in the public interest that the prosecution be completed. The Court ultimately determined that the principles of timely discipline outweighed the concerns about Mr. Abrametz’s conduct. This represents a call to the Law Society, and all regulatory bodies, to act with greater expediency.”