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B.C. lawyer suspended for 6 months for sexually harassing client at Victoria courthouse

The Victoria courthouse is pictured on June 30, 2021 (CTV News) The Victoria courthouse is pictured on June 30, 2021 (CTV News)
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A former British Columbia lawyer has been suspended for six months and ordered to pay more than $4,000 in legal costs after he sexually harassed a client at the Victoria courthouse.

According to a Law Society of B.C. tribunal decision issued Tuesday, lawyer William James Heflin committed professional misconduct by sexually harassing his client while representing her in a family law matter.

The tribunal found Heflin made "unwelcome comments, advances and physical contact" with his unnamed client during a meeting on Oct. 1, 2020, behaviours which amounted to professional misconduct.

The Law Society of B.C. says Heflin met with his client to direct her to sign a form saying he was no longer her lawyer "with the intent to start a sexual relationship with her."

He went on to inappropriately touch and kiss her without her consent, according to the regulatory body.

Heflin was hired by the woman in 2017 for a family law matter in which she was seeking child and spousal support.

During the Oct. 1 meeting at the Victoria courthouse, Heflin told his client he would no longer represent her in the matter "based on his thoughts of retirement, his intent to run for city council, and his interest in having a sexual relationship with her," according to a November 2022 decision by the tribunal.

CELLPHONE RECORDING

Heflin instructed his client to sign the form saying he was no longer her lawyer, but he did not fully explain the implications to her and he continued to leave open the possibility that he could still act on her behalf, the tribunal found.

When Heflin left the room to file the form with the court registry, his client began recording audio with her cellphone.

When Heflin returned to the room, he said, "OK, well I'm not your lawyer anymore," to which the woman replied, "You're not?" and he responded, "Now I can do what I want," according to the tribunal's decision.

Heflin then kissed her several times, hugged her and touched her breast. The lawyer argued the contact was consensual.

Prior to the meeting, the woman had not given any indication she was interested in a romantic relationship with Heflin, according to the tribunal. One week later, the woman made a complaint about the incident to the Law Society of B.C.

CLIENT WAS IN 'VULNERABLE STATE'

After the meeting, Heflin continued to try contacting the woman, leaving voicemails on her phone and once visiting her home.

Heflin's actions had a detrimental effect on his client, who experienced a "nervous breakdown" earlier that year and experienced mental health issues following the harassment, the society found.

Heflin "deserted his client at a time when she needed him most," the tribunal found in its November 2022 decision that found the lawyer guilty of sexual harassment.

"He put his own interests ahead of hers by leaving her without legal representation in order to pursue his own sexual interests," the tribunal said.

"He harassed and assaulted a client who was in a vulnerable state, in circumstances where the power dynamic was highly imbalanced. Although he has admitted his actions, he refuses to acknowledge the impropriety of them."

Heflin is no longer a member of the society and is not currently seeking reinstatement.

If he does successfully apply for reinstatement, his six-month suspension should begin on the first business day after he is reinstated, the tribunal found.

Heflin was ordered to pay $4,348.57 for costs and disbursements within one year of the decision.

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