04/30/2014 06:55 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Lawyers' self-policing often 'lax or inadequate,' critic says

The lengthy time it took the Law Society of Upper Canada to investigate a complaint and disbar a crooked Ontario lawyer once again highlights the need to reform how the profession is regulated, says a former law school dean.

Earlier this week, CBC News reported that while Ontario's law society spent 6½ years dealing with Richard Chojnacki's disciplinary case, he went on to steal almost $5 million from unsuspecting clients.

Former University of Western Ontario law dean Philip Slayton, who also spent 20 years as a practising lawyer, has long criticized Canada's system where provincial law societies handle complaints and police their own, a topic he tackled in his 2007 book, Lawyers Gone Bad.

"No law society wants to admit too easily that a member of the law society is a bad guy," he said in an interview. "The law society runs its disciplinary proceedings as it decides to do, so it draws up the rules. And I don't think that’s a good idea.

"It's still a question of the law society judging its own members and… more often than not, judging them in a way that most people would regard as favourable or lax or inadequate," he added.

Slayton said an independent body should instead deal with complaints about lawyers. He pointed to parts of the United Kingdom, which took policing powers away from their law society in 2010 and put them in the hands of an independent ombudsman.

"It was felt that the complaints handling was actually very poorly managed," said Adam Sampson, the chief legal ombudsman for England and Wales. "There was a belief that the legal profession looked after its own."

Now that an independent body addresses complaints, they are handled with twice the speed and half the cost of the previous system, Sampson said. "It's really important that there is somebody external with the responsibility and power to hold the lawyer to account," he said. Parts of Australia have a similar model.

'Served the public quite well'

Reforming the system Canada-wide would be a challenge because the country's law societies are under provincial jurisdiction. "Not impossible, but difficult," said Slayton, who wishes there was more political will at both the political and federal level to initiate change.

But the current head of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Thomas Conway, said he does not want to hand over power. "We don't want to lose the right to self-regulation," he said.

Conway said that the jury is still out on whether the new U.K. format is the solution and that Canada's system is "a model that in my view has served the public quite well."

He added that the law society aims "to protect the public, and not to protect lawyers or their reputations."

In 2013 alone, Ontario's law society launched investigations based on a variety of complaints involving 1,824 lawyers.