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Alberta lawyer disbarred over fees charged to residential school survivors

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CALGARY - The Law Society of Alberta has disbarred a lawyer accused of misconduct in his handling of settlements awarded to survivors of residential school abuse.

David Blott had asked to be allowed to resign before the society's investigation was complete.

The chairman of a panel hearing the application Friday made it clear to Blott that his resignation is the same as disbarment.

"The member is coming before the law society and has effectively said, 'I will agree to be disbarred. I will resign with the conditions that equate with disbarment,'" Rob Harvie said.

"Some might suggest this is too little consequence for the conduct of the member. To this I would again affirm that, according to the law society, this is the most serious consequence that we have the authority to impose."

The panel heard that between 2006 and 2012, Blott's Calgary law firm handled almost 4,600 residential school claims, many in southern Alberta. Information was taken from each victim who would sign a retainer agreement. If the settlement were $100,000, Blott would receive $15,000 from the federal government and up to an additional $15,000 from the settlement payout.

"The tragic reality ... is what started out as a reconciliation effort in the righting of wrongs turned into what can only be described as a factory of gross self-interest, where victims of the residential school system were essentially revictimized and treated less like human beings and more like cattle," said Harvie.

"They were in fact dehumanized by a process where the ultimate goal appears to be making as much money as possible with the least amount of personal attention."

Law Society counsel Heather Spicer said the client base grew so quickly that the firm couldn't keep up with demand. Roughly one-quarter of survivors making a claim didn't actually see their lawyer until moments before their hearings before an adjudicator.

"His approach to clients has been described as an assembly line," said Spicer.

Figures indicate that Blott and his lawyers spent an average of eight minutes on the phone with a settlement applicant, she said. A number of residential school victims, anxious to collect their money, would take cash advances on their settlements at a high rate of interest from lending institutions, she added.

Blott's firm would receive the settlement cheques and pay the interest and fees owed. Often there was very little cash remaining.

Blott's lawyer Roy Millen said although his client acknowledged there was evidence of wrongdoing, he wasn't admitting guilt to anything.

Blott told the panel he accepted the statement of facts presented by his lawyer.

"I don't have anything to add."

A number of residential school survivors from the Blood reserve south of Calgary are involved in a class-action lawsuit against Blott and other lawyers. They attended his hearing Friday and applauded as the panel left the hall.

Connie Calling Last said Blott was her lawyer and she received half of what she was promised. Much of her settlement was taken up by undisclosed fees.

"I came here because I wanted to see him get some sort of justice on what he did," she said.

"He said 'you're going to be rich,' and look what happened. Who's rich? Him. I'm not rich. I'm poor and he's rich right now out of what he did."

The $5-billion residential schools settlement agreement is believed to be the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. It is designed to resolve claims of abuse at more than 130 residential schools across the country out of court.

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