Regina lawyer Tony Merchant is being suspended from practising law after a disciplinary panel found he used a “tone of disrespect and intimidation” to withhold settlement money from a residential school survivor to cover legal bills owed by her son.
The Law Society of Saskatchewan issued a decision this week to suspend Merchant for eight months, starting Feb. 1, 2021. He is also ordered to pay more than $10,000 in costs.
According to the Law Society decision, Merchant’s firm began representing a woman, who is unnamed in the decision, in 2000 to assist with a claim under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
It also states that Merchant assisted her son with a similar claim as well, along with unrelated criminal matters.
In 2000, the woman signed a document allowing Merchant’s firm to collect any proceeds from her settlement to pay for any legal matters undertaken on her behalf.
However, this document was made null and void after the settlement agreement for residential school survivors in 2006 forbade settlement payments from being assigned to anyone but the survivor.
In January 2014, the government of Canada issued the woman a cheque for $93,000, which was sent to Merchant’s firm, with an additional roughly $14,000 to cover legal fees.
In March, Merchant’s law firm drafted, but did not send, a letter, enclosing a cheque for $54,949.17. This was after a contingency fee of 30 per cent was deducted.
Merchant also sought an additional $21,310.83 for outstanding legal bills for the woman’s son. The letter also stated that the fees were pending review by an adjudicator.
Then in April, Merchant sent the woman a letter trying to convince her to use the settlement money to settle her son’s bills.
“You owe the money. You agreed to pay the money. That should not be confused with the fact that we do not have legally enforceable assignments by which we may legally hold back the money from the funds,” Merchant wrote in the letter.
“We could sue you for the $21,310.83. My expectation is we would succeed with that lawsuit and obtain a judgment against you. We could then seize your assets, your car, your bank account, or whatever, in order to collect these debts that you owe.”
After receiving the letter, the woman confirmed that she would pay the accounts.
Law Society counsel said the letter “was of an inappropriately threatening nature.” Merchant’s counsel argued that “the course of action taken by the member was consistent with the kind of steps taken by lawyers in the normal course of events to ensure the payment of their fees.”
But the three-member hearing panel disagreed, finding Merchant guilty of conduct unbecoming of a lawyer on two counts: one for inducing the woman to sign the document and the other for acting on it to hold the money back.
“One of our reasons for this has to do with the extensive involvement the member has had with the process for determining the claims of residential school survivors as that process has unfolded,” the decision read.
Global News reached out to Tony Merchant for comment but has not yet received a response.