A hearing for lawyer James Morton, a sole practitioner at Morton Barristers in Hamilton, Ont., is scheduled for Aug. 13 before the Law Society of Ontario’s tribunal in Toronto.
The law society is seeking to restrict or suspend Morton’s licence “on the basis that there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is a significant risk of harm to members of the public, or to the public interest in the administration of justice,” according to a hearing notice in Law Society Tribunal file No.: 18H-093.
According to the file, Morton was arrested and charged after he surrendered himself at the York Regional Police Station on June 26, according to an affidavit of law society investigator Brian Borg. The law society was informed of a police investigation in May, and began its investigation on July 4, Borg’s affidavit said.
The criminal charges include forgery by making a false divorce order; forgery by making a false divorce certificate; using, dealing with and acting as a document was genuine knowing it to be forged; obstructing, perverting or defeating the course of justice by falsifying court documents to facilitate an unauthorized divorce; signing a marriage licence application knowing he had no authority to administer the oath; unlawfully going through a form of marriage; and procuring a feigned marriage, said the law society tribunal file.
According to the law society tribunal file, Morton’s articling student was instructed in April by law clerk Jennifer Packwood to file divorce papers for Morton and his wife at the Newmarket Superior Court. Morton’s wife told a detective that she was never served with divorce papers, according to an affidavit of Borg.
Morton then got married to Packwood on May 12, the law society alleges, despite using allegedly forged divorce documentation.
Rebecca Bromwich, a sole practitioner lawyer and professor at Carleton's Department of Law and Legal Studies, says she was saddened by the allegations against Morton, whom she knows, and noted that the allegations in this particular case have not been heard out in court and Morton is innocent until proven otherwise. It’s not clear in Morton’s case what the nature of his alleged relationships are.
“Oftentimes, when you are talking about polyamory and polygamy, it’s actually a consensual relationship between adults and no one is deceiving anybody,” Bromwich says. “In our society, we don’t criminally sanction adultery, same-sex marriage. It’s this whole notion that Pierre Trudeau said about keeping the law out of the bedroom. Why is the law still there in a polyamorous relationship or when there is some messiness and overlap between different partnerships?”
While interviewing Morton, Borg said in the affidavit, he “canvassed the possibility that mental health issues might explain this apparently out-of-character behaviour.” Morton replied that, although he had been prescribed antidepressants, there was nothing “tremendously wrong” with his mental state, Borg’s affidavit said.
“I have a strong and supportive spouse, I’ll call her that . . .” Morton said, according to Borg.
Morton, who was called to the bar in 1988, focuses on Aboriginal law, civil litigation, criminal and quasi-criminal law, according to the Law Society of Ontario directory.
Bromwich says the allegations against Morton touch on several larger, general ethical debates surrounding the law’s treatment of alleged sexual impropriety and, separately, the issue of one’s duty as an officer of the court.
“Criminal bigamy charges are potentially problematic from an ethical and policy perspective in my opinion, in light of the social change to prevailing attitudes about personal relationships,” Bromwich says. “However, any fraud charges are not problematic for the same reasons. Neither are any concerns the LSO may have about fraud. The public has to be able to rely on the professional integrity of lawyers.”
Bromwich pointed to a recent court decision in Newfoundland and Labrador that recognized three polyamorous legal parents of a child.
Bromwich says that, from a professional discipline standpoint, the ethical debate surrounds an officer of the court’s duty to be honest with the court. Many of the allegations of the law society surround using false documents and information, the LSO case says.
“The real issue here from a disciplinary perspective . . . is about somebody not being honest, allegedly in their dealings as a professional,” Bromwich says.