Prominent Ontario lawyer pleads guilty to bigamy, forging divorce documents

Click to play video 'Hamilton lawyer James Morton has pleaded guilty to forgery and bigamy' Hamilton lawyer James Morton has pleaded guilty to forgery and bigamy
WATCH ABOVE: Catherine McDonald was in court when the woman Morton married in May 2018, while still married to his first wife, talked about how her life is ruined.

James Cooper Morton had it all, but now the prominent Hamilton lawyer, a member of the Law Society of Ontario and Nunavut and former president of the Ontario Bar Association, may never practice law again after pleading guilty to forging divorce papers and bigamy.

The 58-year-old stood up in a Newmarket courtroom on Friday and admitted he married Jennifer Packwood, a law clerk from the office where he worked in Hamilton, despite the fact he was still married to his wife Rhonda Shousterman. Morton and Shousterman were married in 1990.

Shousterman is a Justice of the Peace at the Newmarket courthouse. According to the agreed statement of facts, she told police she and Morton were not divorced and no application for divorce had ever been made.

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The wedding for Morton and Packwood took place at Jordan Manor in St. Catharines on May 12, 2018. The traditional wedding invitation sent to guests was presented an exhibit in court along with pictures from the happy day showing the bride and groom. Morton could be seen wearing a tuxedo and Packwood could be seen in a sleeveless off-white gown. The officiant, Kevin Philip, was provided with the marriage licence and performed what he believed to be a legal marriage ceremony.

But York Regional Police were already investigating Morton, unbeknownst to his would-be second wife.

Less than a month before the wedding and believing that Morton was in the process of getting a divorce from Shousterman, Packwood asked an articling student from the law office where she worked with Morton to go the Newmarket courthouse with a divorce order Morton had shown her. She said she wanted to make sure his divorce from Shousterman would be finalized in time for their May 12 wedding date.

Packwood was unaware the divorce order was fake. According to court documents, Morton had shown Packwood the divorce document and Packwood knew it was kept in the dresser drawer in the Hamilton home Packwood and Morton shared.

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On April 23, 2018, Morton’s law student went to the Newmarket courthouse and went to the court office where family court documents are filed and stored. The student presented the divorce order, a $19 personal cheque signed by Jennifer Packwood and his business, and requested a certificate of divorce.

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It became apparent to the clerk that there were some problems with the divorce order. The court file number on the order did not exist. Furthermore, there was no court file and no record of any proceedings involving James Morton and Rhonda Shousterman in Newmarket. It was later determined that one of two signatures on the fake divorce order created by Morton had been copied from a judge on Packwood’s divorce order. She had also been married once before and was legally divorced in September 2017.

The clerk told the law student that he could not issue a certificate of divorce on the spot and informed the student that once they found the file, the certificate would be mailed or they would call him to pick it up. The student left and informed Packwood of what happened in court. When Packwood told Morton she sent their law student to the courthouse to get a certificate of divorce and was not able get one, Morton agreed he would take care of it.

York Regional Police were called in after the court office determined the divorce order was fake and a criminal investigation began. In the meantime, Morton attended Hamilton city hall and applied for a marriage licence bringing with him a fraudulent certificate of divorce that he created. Morton also declared he was divorced and wrote a fake court file number on the form.

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Police interviewed Shousterman on May 8, 2018. She was already aware that an investigation had begun into the divorce order. According to the agreed statement of facts, she told police she had spoken to Morton about it. Shousterman was confused about who would have created this fake divorce order and why. She reported that Morton was similarly confused and upset about this fake divorce order and he had no idea who created it and why.

On May 8, police also spoke to Morton to arrange a time to interview him. He said he could not meet police until May 15. According to court documents, Morton knew before May 12 – the date of his wedding to Packwood — that police were conducting a criminal investigation into a fraudulent divorce order that he had created and relied on.

On May 23, 2018, just 11 days after the wedding, Morton met with York Regional Police and told them he was still married to Rhonda Shousterman. He told investigators he was living at his office in Hamilton, but still resided with his wife in theory and was “back and forth” with his wife. He also said there were some problems in the marriage, but he was trying to work it out.

Morton explained that he created the divorce order being investigated, but did not intend to give it to anyone or use it for any purpose because it wasn’t real. Morton said he was thinking about divorcing his wife but after creating the document, and realized he didn’t want to. He said that when he created the divorce order, he was sitting in his office “very sad, desperate, drinking and imagining what it would be like to be divorced. It was while he was in that state of mind that Morton created the divorce order.

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He also acknowledged his relationship with Jennifer Packwood, saying that she wanted to be together with him and was hoping he would get a divorce. When asked by police if he ever told Packwood he was divorced, he said, “No.”

Investigators had obtained a copy of the invitation to Morton’s wedding to Packwood and 30 minutes into their interview, the officer placed a copy of the invitation in front of him and asked, “What can you tell me about this?”

“Nothing,” Morton replied before exercising his right to remain silent.

He ended the interview and left the room a minute later. On June 26, 2018, Morton surrendered to York Regional Police after the investigation was completed. He was subsequently arrested and charged.

Crown attorney Robert Scott said while reading the agreed statement of facts that the Morton and Packwood had cancelled their wedding once before after Morton told Packwood that he wouldn’t be legally divorced in time for the original October 22, 2017 wedding date, which was planned at a golf club in Hamilton.

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Packwood gave a victim impact statement after the agreed statement of facts were read out, calling the fake marriage “the most traumatic event of her life.” She told Justice Howard Borenstein that she could never have imagined that asking the articling student to attend the Newmarket courthouse to obtain a certificate of divorce would be the start of her life changing forever.

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Packwood also told the court when police called her a month after the wedding and she met with investigators, it was the first time she realized that Morton’s divorce documents were forged and that he had never divorced Shousterman.

“Everything that I had believed was fabricated. Everything was a lie. It was lie after lie after lie,” Packwood explained.

She said the losses in her life have been catastrophic. Packwood said newspaper articles through “innuendo and blatant misinformation from the Law Society of Ontario” made it look like she had something to do with this.

“Everyone thinks I am the direct cause of the fall of James Morton. Well, I am not,” she said.

The crown asked the court for a six-month conditional sentence while defence lawyer Stephen Bernstein suggested a discharge.

Morton’s licence to practice law was suspended by the Law Society of Ontario in August 2018 after he was charged. It remains unclear what will happen to his licence now. Sentencing on the bigamy and forgery conviction is slated for July.

Neither Packwood nor Morton had any comment as they left the Newmarket Court.