TORONTO — A long-time lawyer who systematically pilfered more than half of a $600,000 estate trust meant to support its disabled beneficiary has lost his licence to practise law.
In disbarring Robert Comartin, a regulatory tribunal concluded he had acted dishonestly and shamelessly for the better part of a decade in helping himself to hundreds of thousands of dollars under the guise of "legal fees."
"The public cannot trust a lawyer who treats trust monies as his own and who covers up his actions by issuing accounts he knows are not justified," a tribunal of the Law Society of Ontario said in its decision. "Mr. Comartin's actions are fundamentally inconsistent with the honesty and integrity required from a member of the legal profession."
The tribunal heard that Comartin, 65, who practised in Tecumseh, Ont., became co-trustee for an estate trust in October 2004. The main beneficiary was the testator's son, who has a mental disability and was unable to take care of his own financial affairs.
By 2015, Comartin had billed the estate for $352,494, far more than he was entitled to and an amount the tribunal concluded was "grossly excessive, false and shameful."
Records show he even charged for time he spent dealing with a law society audit of his practice, and that he provided misleading information to the courts when he applied to finalize the estate years after he should have done so.
"Mr. Comartin was dishonest in administering the estate from the outset," the tribunal concluded.
Among other things, estate trustees are legally obliged to act in the best interests of beneficiaries. They are required to keep proper and complete records and receipts for payments. Clearly, the panel found, Comartin failed on those accounts.
"He charged for attorney services such as meetings with social workers, correspondence with the nursing home and meetings with ministry officials, all at his legal rate," the panel said. "Mr. Comartin was not entitled to charge for those services."
The law society called for his disbarment. Comartin, a lawyer for almost 30 years, admitted incompetence but argued for a lengthy suspension. He said he had felt overwhelmed by the administration of the estate and trust for which he had no expertise, but sought no help. He said he intended no harm to the beneficiary.
The tribunal sided with the law society, saying there were no mitigating or extenuating circumstances. Comartin, the panel concluded, had taken advantage of a vulnerable beneficiary over a long period. He had also tried to cover up his misdeeds by submitted misleading materials to the court.
"Mr. Comartin engaged in serious dishonesty," the tribunal concluded. "Revocation is the only penalty that achieves the purpose of maintaining public confidence in the legal profession."
The tribunal also ordered him to pay $40,000 in legal costs to the law society, but gave him five years to do so.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 28, 2020.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press