Lawyers overcharged more than 2,500 people who were compensated for abuse they suffered in residential schools, say documents revealed by Ottawa.
Fifty-six of the lawyers had their fees reduced on more than 10 separate occasions and one lawyer had fees reviewed 257 times and paid back more than $2 million.
The Law Society of Manitoba disbarred Howard Tennenhouse in 2012, who fought Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat rulings to return $960,000 in extra fees he charged 55 clients, many of whom lived on Sandy Bay First Nation.
They have all been reimbursed, secretariat spokesman Michael Tansey told the Free Press Thursday, adding the Tennenhouse files are the only lawyer overcharges the federal agency is aware of involving a Manitoba lawyer.
A spokeswoman for the Law Society of Manitoba says other lawyers were investigatedfor their conduct on residential school matters. Two other lawyers were charged and convicted of professional misconduct, but the concerns were more in the nature of quality of service and responses to the adjudicator. However, Mr. Tennenhouse is the only Manitoba lawyer that has been charged with professional misconduct for misappropriating funds from residential school survivors.
The case against Tennenhouse dragged on for almost a year, even after Tennenhouse’s bid to the courts to dismiss the society’s investigation against him failed to win him a reprieve.
At one point, he was mortgaging land he owned in Israel in order to repay his clients.
"Many survivors were not aware that they had been victims of misappropriation by Mr. Tennenhouse. Accordingly, we located and contacted the survivors, assisted them in completing the reimbursement application form and compensated them," said Lean Kosokowsky, the law society’s director of regulation.
Tennenhouse has not been charged criminally, although the law society has forwarded its paperwork on Tennenhouse to police twice after making its ruling in 2012.
In 2016, a senior Crown attorney at Manitoba Justice asked the licensing body for the same information, as well as detailed case files.
Ray Mason, head of the National Indian Residential School Survivors and a residential school survivor from Manitoba, said he wasn’t surprised by the data Ottawa has revealed.
"I’m aware of the stuff that is going on," he said.
"I’ve always resented that, from any lawyer across Canada — and I’m aware of some of them," Mason added. "At least people will not be subject to being re-victimized."
Mason, who is originally from Peguis First Nation, was among the first to campaign for settlements and said he’s still meeting with survivors who feel they were tricked into signing away their rights in the years before federal compensation was set up.
About 85 elderly survivors in western Manitoba were left out of the settlement process entirely.
"Those poor people, they trusted their lawyers," he said.
The federal Justice Department released the documents detailing the excessive charges over the past decade to MP Charlie Angus, the NDP’s critic for indigenous affairs.
"What disturbs me is this process was supposed to protect people who had been so badly victimized and the (federal government mandated Independent Assessment Process) has failed them again and again and again," Angus said.
"You’re dealing with people who, because of the abuse they’ve suffered, have survived mainly on the margins. They were told to trust the process," he said.
"The simple question is, what does the oversight body of the IAP actually do?
"If people can serially abuse the system and overcharge people who have been so badly victimized, then go back into the hearings and do it again, what kind of process is there to protect survivors? That’s the question," Angus said.