B.C. lawyer reprimanded after billing mentally ill client $1M | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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B.C. lawyer reprimanded after billing mentally ill client $1M

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A B.C. lawyer barred from practising law has been found guilty of professional misconduct for charging his mentally ill client more than $1-million in a decade-old divorce settlement.

The Law Society of British Columbia found Peter Darren Steven Hart had committed professional misconduct after he charged a client $1,020,000 even though he got her the "worst case result" in a divorce settlement.

"(Hart) took on a vulnerable client that he knew was struggling with mental health problems and knowingly acted contrary to the client’s instructions," reads a Dec. 1 Law Society decision. "(Hart) manipulated the file for his own benefit and took a massive payment that he was not entitled to. More than failing to act without honesty, candour and integrity, (Hart) purposely deceived the client for his own profit."

According to the Dec. 1 decision the case dates back to 2013 when the Victoria-based lawyer took on a family file for a former senior executive in a mining corporation. The executive's former spouse was also a high-earning executive and had assets valued between $15 million and $17 million.

The decision says Hart's client had had a breakdown, attempted suicide and was involuntarily hospitalized.

READ MORE: Kelowna lawyer fined $12K by law society after conviction for threatening ex-wife

When Hart took the client on she was still under psychiatric care, had no income and nearly no assets.

The decision says Hart knew his client would likely get a settlement valued between $3 million and $8 million and that it was not a particularly complex file.

However, Hart then "pressured" his client to enter into a contingency fee agreement where he was paid a percentage of the settlement.

"A contingency fee agreement in these circumstances was not in her interest and was unfair," the Law Society ruled. "(Hart) sought the contingency fee agreement for his personal financial benefit at the expense of the client’s interest."

The decision says Hart then took fees he was not entitled to under the contingency fee agreement and claimed he was told to do so by his client.

Separately, the client took Hart to the B.C. Supreme Court and sought a fee review.

The Justice ruled the million-dollar bill was "unfair and unjust" and reduced the fee to $125,000 ordering Hart to pay back back the rest.

"By the time of this hearing, (Hart) had only refunded $8,000," the decision says.

In June, Hart was disbarred from the B.C. Law Society, losing his licence to practice law over another matter where he misappropriated $4,000 and acted in a conflict of interest over $531,000 he loaned to his law firm.

The decision says that after the settlement Hart continued to mislead his client that she would receive spousal support when the settlement prohibited her from receiving any.

Along with multiple other infractions the B.C. Law Society found Hart committed professional misconduct.

"Common sense requires a lawyer working with a mentally ill client to take extra care to ensure the client has a good understanding of the case, the lawyer’s advice and has provided clear instructions," the decision says.

"Unfortunately, in this case, (Hart) appeared to view the client’s mental illness as a reason to act without instructions and put his own interests ahead of the client’s. (Hart) acted with a gross culpable neglect of his duties to his client."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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