Focus On

Attacks kill two and bomb wounds a third

Thursday, July 16, 2015 @ 8:00 PM | By Cristin Schmitz

Lawyers are scrutinizing their security measures after separate violent incidents at law offices in Quebec and Manitoba by attackers alleged to be disgruntled clients.

In perhaps the bloodiest 24 hours ever experienced by the Canadian legal community, Montreal-area lawyer Benoît Côté and notary Marie-Josée Sills were fatally shot at work on July 2. The next morning in Winnipeg, family law practitioner Maria Mitousis was maimed after a package delivered to her firm exploded.

In the Quebec case, police say a former client of Côté’s is the sole suspect.

In Winnipeg, the ex-husband of one of Mitousis’s clients is accused of planting three explosive devices disguised as voice recorders. According to reports, the suspect targeted Mitousis, who reportedly lost a hand in the explosion, as well as the law office where his ex-lawyer used to work. The other two bombs were detonated by police without causing injury.

Lawyers across Canada reeled in shock after the attacks, but they also rallied quickly to support their fallen colleagues. After just three days, 381 donors, many of them lawyers, had contributed $46,603 to GoFundMe to help Mitousis while she recovers from extensive injuries.

“The outpouring of support from the Winnipeg legal community, and other communities from other provinces has been significant already,” said Laurelle Harris of Winnipeg’s Levene Tadman Golub. Harris and fellow family law practitioner Kelli Potter, of Paterson Patterson Wyman & Abel in Virden, Man., set up the online campaign to raise $100,000.

Harris said lawyers have started talking about what they can do to improve their own security, but “right now our priority is supporting Maria.

“Honestly, the community is floored,” Harris said. “The family law bar is floored, and we’re just still sort of getting used to the idea that this has even happened and we haven’t really had a chance to let the dust settle and figure out what comes next.”

She added, “certainly in light of the events of last week, law firms are thinking about whether or not they are going to change any procedures in terms of security. But it’s pretty hard to guard against these types of incidents. You can change certain things but if somebody wants to get to you, they are probably are going to find a way to do that.”

In the hours after the Manitoba bombing, police and the law society each issued bulletins warning lawyers to be on the lookout for suspicious packages and to exercise caution when dealing with mail deliveries.

Kris Dangerfield, CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba, told The Lawyers Weekly the regulator may take a closer look at measures to ensure that lawyers and staff remain safe.

“We don’t have a formal protocol that’s in place — we haven’t had to, to this point in time,” Dangerfield said. “I suppose we may have to examine that but I think what we have really just been advising people to use common sense, to be careful, to be prudent, to be on the alert for anything that looks unusual or suspicious…identifying when there are situations where there are individuals who perhaps are reacting in a manner that’s not appropriate or excessive in the circumstances.

“We can’t all work and live in fortresses either,” Dangerfield added. “At the end of the day I don’t think you can ever predict this kind of an outcome, either in terms of what has happened in Winnipeg or what has happened in Quebec.”

At press time, the Barreau du Québec could not be reached.

Susan Tonkin, a Law Society of Upper Canada spokesperson, said by e-mail that the Ontario regulator is not aware of any recent threats against, or attacks on, lawyers in Ontario. A lawyer was fatally shot at Osgoode Hall in 1982, and a shooting occurred at the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1978.

Tonkin said the law society does not have a protocol or other advice on law firm security.

“Law firms are responsible for their own individual security protocols and we advise them to adhere to those procedures, and exercise vigilance,” she said.

Peter Engelmann of Ottawa’s Goldblatt Partners noted Ontario law firms are obliged to conduct workplace safety reviews. Lawyers, “as employers in this province, have obligations to our staff under the Occupational Health and Safety Act,” he said. “Law firms are going to have to take their responsibilities that much more seriously under [the act], especially if they’re dealing with family law. I think you’re going to see that ramped up for sure.”

The Ontario Bar Association issued a personal security handbook for lawyers in 2005.

Côté was critically wounded at his law office in Terrebonne, north of Montreal, along with Sills, a pregnant bystander. Both jurists died in hospital.

Suspect Michel Dubuc, 52, committed suicide hours after the shootings, but not before killing his two sons, ages 19 and 21, and setting his house on fire. He had been Côté’s client but was in the midst of suing his ex-lawyer and others for a $500,000 loan that Côté allegedly arranged for Dubuc to make to the owner of a now-defunct Montreal bar.

In Winnipeg, Guido Amsel, 49, faces two charges of attempted murder, one count of aggravated assault and other charges. The package for Amsel’s ex-wife was detonated by police at her business place without causing injury. Police reportedly detonated the third bomb near the Winnipeg law office of Orle Bargen and Davidson.