Lawyer handed $100K award for discrimination
Published Monday, July 18, 2011 4:54PM PDT
The Law Society of B.C. has been ordered to pay a lawyer more than $100,000 for discriminating against him because of his clinical depression.
Peter Mokua Gichuru filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal about a question on the law society's application for articling students that asked him to reveal his mental illness, which he says resulted in a 10-month delay in being called to the bar.
"He felt as though he was in a battle to successfully complete his articles, and the law society appeared determined to stop him from doing so. By the time he was called to the bar he was drained and exhausted from his struggle," tribunal member Tonie Beharrell wrote Friday in a decision granting Gichuru compensation.
The decision on compensation follows a 2009 ruling from the tribunal finding that the law society had committed systemic discrimination against those with mental disabilities.
Gichuru was first required to reveal his depression to the law society in 1998 as he applied for a co-op position with the B.C. government while studying at the University of Victoria.
The law society's application asked students: "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?"
At that point, Gichuru had suffered from bouts of depression -- a major affective illness -- for five years. He was asked the same question again in 2002 and 2003 as he applied for articling positions with private law firms.
His affirmative answers led the law society to ask him to undergo a series of psychiatric assessments.
"These requests represented a significant intrusion into Mr. Gichuru's personal and medical autonomy and can be assumed to have a significant impact on his personal dignity," Beharrell wrote.
The tribunal ruled that the law society should pay Gichuru $72,500 for lost wages, $3,155 in medical and legal costs and $25,000 for "injury to his dignity, feelings and self-respect."
The award was reduced by $15,000 to recognize a payment made by the law society to Gichuru last year.
Gichuru has not worked in the legal profession since the end of 2008. He has, however, spent a significant amount of time in court, representing himself in lawsuits and human rights complaints with mixed success.
Law society spokeswoman Lesley Pritchard told ctvbc.ca that the society needs time to review the tribunal's 104-page decision before commenting on the award.
She pointed out that that mental illness can have a serious impact on someone's ability to function as a lawyer, but added that the law society has revised the application question based on advice from medical and legal experts.
"The practice of law is rigorous and demands a high level of functioning. Any medical condition that would render somebody incapable of practicing law competently puts clients at risk and also harms the profession's reputation," Pritchard said.
But she added that mental illnesses like depression don't necessarily preclude someone from being a good lawyer.
"The law society understands that everyone experiences pressures in life and responds to those pressures differently," she said.
In its revised application question, the law society asks: "Based on your personal history, your current circumstances or any profession opinion or advice you have received, are you currently experiencing any condition which is reasonably likely to impair your ability to function as an articled student?"