The website of a Toronto criminal-defence lawyer trivialized sex crimes and violated the legal profession’s rules on advertising, the Law Society of Upper Canada alleges.
Veteran defence lawyer Craig Penney faces disciplinary proceedings before a law society tribunal over what he called “case studies” that were posted between 2014 and 2017 on his website to appeal to prospective clients, mostly men, who were charged with sexual assault.
The law society alleges in a notice filed with the tribunal that the material Mr. Penney posted “tended to trivialize crimes of a sexual nature and minimalize the experience of members of the public who have complained of crimes of a sexual nature.”
On web pages that now appear to be offline, Mr. Penney recounted the stories of former clients such as “Rico,” who was described as “exploring a woman’s home” when his “wardrobe malfunctioned, and his penis made a brief escape.”
According to a police report posted with this account, the accused had claimed to be a plumber looking for the source of a water leak to gain entry to the woman’s home before rubbing up against the victim and undoing his pants to expose himself.
The “Rico” case study, along with similar material on Mr. Penney’s website and those of other defence lawyers, were the subject of a 2014 academic paper by Elaine Craig, an associate professor of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Her research looked at the websites of criminal-defence firms in Canada that specialize in sex-assault charges.
Prof. Craig argued many of the websites she found relied on “outdated assumptions” about sexual assault and might be violating the profession’s codes of conduct. Her paper prompted some in the criminal-defence bar to change their websites.
Mr. Penney, who graduated from York University’s prestigious Osgoode Hall law school in 1992, has represented a wide variety of defendants in his career, including a security guard who shot and killed two men at an East End McDonald’s in 2015.
Mr. Penney did not respond to requests for comment this week. In 2014, asked to comment on Prof. Craig’s original article, Mr. Penney responded in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail by defending his website while acknowledging that he used “levity in my case studies.” He accused Prof. Craig of cherry-picking from his material.
“The information on my websites exists as a resource for people who have been charged with a criminal offence,” he said in his 2014 e-mail. “It should not come as a surprise that that information does not appeal to everyone.”
The Law Society of Upper Canada’s rules ban lawyers from advertising that is “not in the best interests of the public,” is “inconsistent with a high standard of professionalism” or that brings the profession into disrepute.
In its brief notice in the case, issued in September, the law society also says Mr. Penney’s website portrays him as “aggressive,” which is considered off-limits for legal advertising. When contacted by The Globe and Mail, the law society would provide no other specific information about its allegations.
In an e-mail, law society spokeswoman Susan Tonkin said the regulatory body also set up a new “strategic priority team” in its professional regulation division to investigate and prosecute lawyers who break the rules on advertising. The law society would not say if other lawyers with similar advertising aimed at those charged with sexual assault were also facing professional discipline.
The law society’s tribunal can mete out reprimands and suspensions or strip a lawyer of his licence to practice.