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Metro Vancouver lawyer suspended for 'frankly startling' misconduct, tribunal rules

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A Metro Vancouver lawyer is barred from practising law for five months after a disciplinary tribunal found he committed professional misconduct by making false statements and acted in a conflict of interest when he represented both sides in a family law dispute.

Pir Indar Paul Singh Sahota of Surrey was also ordered to pay $15,927 in legal costs and disbursements to the Law Society of British Columbia following the misconduct finding.

"The hearing panel took into consideration the fact Sahota has been a lawyer for 40 years and should, by this point, understand the undivided duty of loyalty a lawyer owes to their client, his lack of understanding of his misconduct along with an absence of a commitment to change, and his previous professional conduct record," the society said in the suspension notice last week.

The disciplinary hearing began last August, five months after Sahota was found to have violated the law society's code of conduct by serving conflicting roles as counsel for a husband and later as counsel for the wife in the same family law case. Sahota also prepared a filing that contained untrue statements, and filed an affidavit that contained confidential client information, according to the disciplinary decision.

The untrue statements noted in the decision were found in a letter Sahota had prepared in October 2020, releasing himself as counsel for the husband in the case.

According to the tribunal, the letter stated the husband had not discussed financial or employment matters with the lawyer, and did not disclose to him any confidential documents. The tribunal found Sahota should have known those claims to be misleading or untrue.

The lawyer also claimed to have witnessed the husband's signature on the letter, "when he knew or should have known that was not true," the tribunal said.

'Frankly startling' behaviour

Four months later, Sahota began representing the wife in the family claim, constituting a clear conflict of interest, the tribunal found. Sahota refused to withdraw from acting on behalf of the wife, and when the husband filed an application to have him disqualified from the case, Sahota prepared and filed with the court an affidavit containing confidential information, including the husband's driver's licence and details of the husband's objectives in the family law claim, according to the tribunal.

"The (lawyer's) actions in this case, taken individually and holistically, are frankly startling, especially for someone with his length of call, not just in B.C., but before that in India, some 40 years in total," the tribunal wrote in its decision.

"They strike at the core of a lawyer's undivided duty of loyalty to a client, and show a complete lack of understanding by the respondent of that fundamental duty."

In weighing an appropriate punishment for the misconduct, the tribunal considered Sahota's professional conduct record, which includes two prior suspensions for misconduct.

Prior suspensions for misconduct

In 2017, the lawyer was suspended for 90 days after he was found to have committed seven instances of misconduct related to inappropriate accounting practices.

"The state of the financial records of the respondent (Sahota) at all material times was beyond description," the earlier disciplinary panel found. "The English language has insufficient adjectives to pay proper respect to the mess that was the financial records of the respondent."

The same panel found Sahota was so "guilty of negligence and gross incompetence" that he likely did not even understand his duty to his clients.

"So comprehensively inept is he that it may not be appropriate to characterize his behaviour as negligent," the disciplinary panel wrote. "Negligence suggests that there has been dereliction of a duty owed. That characterization requires there to be an understanding of an initial duty that is owed. Nothing in the evidence before us suggests that the respondent was aware of the duty owed to clients in the financial administration of his practice."

In 2019, Sahota's second suspension barred him from practising law for 30 days and prohibited him from engaging in any capacity in a real estate transaction after his involvement in a botched real estate deal.

"The respondent breached his undertakings, ignored opposing counsel, and failed both to manage his staff and to run a disciplined office," the second disciplinary panel found. "His conduct falls short of the quality of service expected of a competent lawyer."

'Conduct was clearly blameworthy'

In the present case, Sahota defended his record before the disciplinary hearing, arguing his actions in the first misconduct case arose from simple carelessness on his part, and did not benefit him personally. On the second case, he argued he did not commit fraud or misappropriate any funds but merely failed to provide a document to another lawyer, the tribunal heard.

"It is clear from his submissions that the respondent still does not understand the import of the prior findings of professional misconduct against him," the panel wrote.

"His conduct was clearly blameworthy in both cases. This lack of understanding, combined with the panel’s findings in this case, raises concerns about the respondent’s fundamental lack of comprehension of the very basics of his duties and obligations as a lawyer."

The panel found that Sahota's misconduct in representing both the husband and the wife in the same legal matter wasted the couple's time, money and emotional energy.

"On the eve of the hearing in the family law proceeding, the wife was without a lawyer," the panel said. "The husband was betrayed by his former lawyer and had his confidential information used against him in a public courtroom by that lawyer."

Sahota was licensed to practise law in India in 1983 and was admitted to the bar in B.C. in 2006, according to the panel. He practised law at two Metro Vancouver firms before starting Sahota Law Corporation in January 2008, focusing on matters of family and criminal law.

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