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B.C. lawyer found guilty of professional misconduct for sexually harassing woman

by HR Law Canada

A lawyer has been found guilty of professional misconduct by the Law Society of British Columbia after it ruled he sexually harassed a woman.

While it’s not an employment law case, it does provide insight into how regulators deal with misconduct by professionals.

William Heflin was hired by the woman, X, in 2017 for a family law matter. She was seeking child and spousal support, and had suffered a nervous breakdown.

On Oct. 1, 2020, Heflin summoned X to a meeting room in a courthouse in Victoria. He requested the meeting because he wanted to tell her he could no longer act as her counsel.

Interest in sexual relationship

He explained to X that his decision to withdraw as counsel was based on his thoughts of retirement, his intent to run for city council and his interest in having a sexual relationship with her.

He asked her to sign a Notice of Intention to Act in Person, without fully explaining the implications of it. X signed it. Through conversation, he continued to leave open the possibility he could act for her.

Heflin then left the room to file the notice with the registry. When he left, X started recording audio on her cellphone. She did not advise Heflin she was recording the audio when he returned. On arrival, he said:

“Okay, well, I’m not your lawyer anymore… now I can do what I want.”

During the conversation, he kissed X several times, hugged her and touched her breast. X crossed her arms and moved her body close to the table. She turned her head and did not look directly at him.

Heflin then moved closer to her and straddled her with his legs. He kissed her a second time, and also touched her breast again. Towards the end of the meeting, he said “Just give me a hug” and he hugged X.

He kissed her a third time and said “if you don’t stop that we will never get out of here.”

At no time did X consent to his verbal or physical advances. Near the end of this interaction, X wished Heflin luck and said “but you know if you could just take, even take one case, my case.” He responded, “Maybe I will.”

Prior to that day, X had not given any indication to Heflin that she was interested in a romantic relationship. One week later, she complained to the Law Society about the incident at the courthouse.

Following the meeting, Heflin continued to attempt to contact X by calling her and leaving voicemails (a total of five) and visiting her home, which he did once.

Heflin’s defence

Heflin admitted to kissing her and touching her breasts outside her clothing. He admitted there was no overt consent given but said “our mutual conduct is so indicative of consent that consent at the time must be inferred in favour of myself.”

There was no power dynamic, and X was no longer his client, he said. He interpreted her responses to his actions as favourable, and the complaint as a subsequent change of mind.

The Law Society’s ruling

The Law Society of British Columbia ruled his actions were sexual harassment.

“The lawyer-client relationship is one of trust, and often involves a power imbalance.  X was a vulnerable person at the time of her meeting with the Respondent,” it said.

“She was seeking assistance with an important family law matter, including child support.  She suffered mental health issues, which she had disclosed to the Respondent.  She was in a precarious financial situation, as she was only receiving CPP disability benefits, and was in a dispute with her disability insurer regarding eligibility for benefits.”

The Code of Professional Conduct states that “a lawyer must not sexually harass any person.”

It ruled Heflin’s conduct amounted to professional conduct.

“Although the Notice of Intention to Act in Person had been filed, it was not appropriate conduct as a lawyer in a courthouse to return to the meeting room and indicate to X that he could now do whatever he wanted,” it said.

“Relying on the filing of the Notice of Intention to Act in Person to engage in this conduct is an oversimplification of the solicitor-client relationship.  Fees were still outstanding, the Respondent had left open the possibility of acting for X again, and some file materials had not yet been returned,” it said.

For more information, see Heflin (Re), 2022 LSBC 41 (CanLII)

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