‘Otherwise unimpeachable’ Manitoba lawyer pleads guilty to professional misconduct

A Winnipeg human rights lawyer described as “an icon in his profession” has pleaded guilty to professional misconduct for providing legal services that he’d agreed he would no longer offer.

David Matas, 80, a Winnipeg human rights lawyer who has practised law for more than 50 years, admitted at an April 11 hearing that he breached an undertaking with the Law Society of Manitoba in which he agreed to restrict his legal practice to acting as counsel to other lawyers.

Matas pleaded guilty to the charge under the Legal Profession Act at the law society hearing. The written decision of the panel that heard the case was released earlier this month.

The panel accepted a joint recommendation by the law society and Matas’s lawyer that he be given a formal reprimand and pay $1,500 toward the costs of the proceedings.

“This is an offence against the society and … against the profession itself,” said lawyer Ayli Klein, appearing for the law society at the April 11 hearing, which was held via videoconference.

‘Extraordinary human being’

However, she outlined mitigating factors, including Matas’s guilty plea, his complete lack of any previous discipline record, the facts no client was harmed and Matas gained nothing from his actions, and a career the decision refers to as “unquestionably … distinguished.”

“We are confident that Mr. Matas is not a risk to reoffend,” Klein said. “We really are focusing on general deterrence.”

The undertaking between Matas and the law society made on Feb. 10, 2022, is a legal agreement that he will no longer accept payment from clients, appear in court for them or provide legal services directly to them without a responsible lawyer being present.

It’s not clear what triggered the 2022 agreement, and the law society did not respond to requests from CBC News for details of the agreement.

As a result of that agreement, Matas arranged for seven different lawyers to take responsibility for his clients, with Matas providing counsel to the other lawyers.

He breached the agreement with seven clients, the panel heard, including collecting fees, appearing in court and providing legal advice without the responsible lawyer present.

While Richard Wolson, Matas’s lawyer at the law society hearing, said his client admits he should not have contravened the undertaking, he did so because the responsible lawyer wasn’t handling Matas’s former clients’ cases to his satisfaction. All of those clients’ files had been taken over by that one lawyer.

“Mr. Matas didn’t set out to be defiant and breach an undertaking,” Wolson said. Instead, the other lawyer “was not doing the work that was required of him.”

Wolson also said Matas is “an extraordinary human being” whose exemplary career should be considered a mitigating factor.

He’s written 13 books and numerous articles about human rights, appeared as a Canadian delegate at the United Nations and represented Manitoba on a federal committee during the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Matas also has investigated and reported on human rights issues in China and Sri Lanka and visited more than 75 countries for his human rights work — often providing his services for free, Wolson said.

“David Matas is an icon in this profession,” he said.

In its decision, the panel agreed with Wolson’s characterization of Matas, saying “his character is otherwise unimpeachable,” and that there are mitigating circumstances in the case.

However, it said “breaches of undertakings are inherently serious,” although Matas’s breaches were on the low end of the scale.

“A breach of undertaking cannot be allowed to go unpunished,” the decision says.