Lawyer guilty of professional misconduct in handling of Roma refugees
Refugee claims prepared by Joseph Stephen Farkas were described as « vague,” lacking in important details and contained spelling and grammar mistakes.
A Toronto lawyer who represented a high volume of Roma refugees has been found guilty of professional misconduct for relying on “unqualified non-lawyer staff” to prepare his clients’ asylum claims.
Joseph Stephen Farkas faced complaints from 10 former clients who claimed the lawyer was not directly involved in assisting them in their asylum claims, which one expert witness said “were vague, lacked important details and contained mistakes in spelling and grammar.”
The Law Society Tribunal also heard eight of the 10 complainants’ asylum narratives fell below the standard of a reasonably competent lawyer. Farkas could face suspension, supervised practice or lose his licence.
“The panel does find these (spelling and grammar) errors significant. Mr. Farkas repeatedly said that these errors were deliberately left in to reflect the authentic voice of the complainants,” wrote the three-member tribunal in a 48-page decision in September.
“In the panel’s opinion, the numerous spelling and grammatical errors were not deliberately left in as initially and repeatedly claimed. They were the result of careless preparation.”
Farkas is the third Toronto lawyer to be found guilty of professional misconduct in relation to the questionable quality of legal counsel provided to Roma asylum seekers.
According to an Osgoode Hall Law Journal article, the three lawyers represented a total of 985 Hungarian Roma refugee claimants between 2008 and 2012. The vast majority of them have been denied asylum and deported.
Advocates for Roma have for years blamed the group’s low asylum acceptance rates — which former Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used to label them bogus refugees and introduce restricted access — on the poor legal representation they received in the asylum process.
“If there is one thing that a refugee claimant is entitled to in Canada, it is a fair process, and many former Romani refugee claimants from Hungary did not get this,” said Jennifer Danch of the Canadian Romani Alliance. “That’s why we are calling on the Liberal government to create an opportunity for former clients of Farkas, Hohots and Jaszi to have their claims reassessed.”
Farkas, who was called to the bar in 1991, declined the Star’s interview request but his lawyer, Samuel Robinson, confirmed his client would appeal the tribunal decision.
“Mr. Farkas is understandably disappointed with the tribunal’s decision,” Robinson said in an email. “However, I can confirm that we are instructed to appeal that decision and that a notice of appeal is being prepared and will be filed imminently.”
During 17 sittings of the hearing that stretched over nine months, the tribunal heard testimony from witnesses including Farkas and three of the Hungarian interpreters who worked in his office, as well as two of the 10 complainants.
It heard that Farkas would hold a “Prep 1” meeting to review a client’s asylum story, obtain updates from the client and to discuss possible amendments and/or additional documentation. He would then hold a “Prep 2” meeting to discuss the hearing process and issues that the clients might need to address at their hearing.
What was in dispute was the level of Farkas’ involvement in the process.
While the lawyer testified he recalled being directly involved in the preparation process for many of the complainants, the tribunal said it heard “conflicting and inconsistent” evidence from Farkas’ two Hungarian interpreters, Szilvia Sztranyak and Tamas Buzai.
Buzai testified his boss would meet with new clients but it would be one of the interpreters who prepared the asylum documentation, according to the tribunal decision.
Sztranyak, however, told the tribunal when families came into the office, they were never taken to meet the lawyer. She also alleged clients were asked to sign on blank forms and submit their own asylum narratives for her to translate and they were not read back to the refugee claimants — a practice supported by two complainants who testified but refuted by Farkas and Buzai.
“Ms. Sztranyak testified that she did not see Mr. Farkas involved in the PIF (personal information form) preparation process. She noted that he had an extremely heavy workload and had virtually no interaction with the work she was doing,” the tribunal noted in its decision.
However, Farkas argued before the tribunal that part of his management style — his way of supervising — was to walk around and observe staff working, and the office was physically so small that he could see what everyone was doing.