Former West Vancouver mayor Mark Sager has been fined a $20,000 penalty and told to pay a further $20,000 in legal costs after being found guilty of professional misconduct last year.
Sager committed professional misconduct when he directed a will to be prepared for his godmother by a junior lawyer at his firm that named Sager as one of the beneficiaries, the B.C. Law Society ruled last July.
The decision by a three-person disciplinary panel of the law society also found that Sager accepting a gift of $75,000 from the woman when she had not received independent legal advice was also a breach of professional standards.
While rejecting a six-week suspension sought by the law society, the disciplinary panel wrote that Sager’s breach of the rules should carry a significant fine.
“The seriousness of the conflict that arises when a lawyer is asked to prepare a will in which the lawyer is to receive a substantial benefit is patently obvious,” wrote the disciplinary panel. They added that having a junior lawyer who worked for Sager write up the will did not remove the conflict.
According to the written decision issued by the disciplinary panel in July 2019, the conduct investigated by the law society concerned Sager’s actions regarding an elderly woman who was Sager's godmother and a close friend of Sager’s mother. The panel acknowledged that Sager and the woman - identified only as J.B. in law society documents – “had a very close relationship . . . that was akin to that of nephew and aunt.”
The woman called Sager in June 2013 seeking his legal help on several matters – including representing her in a divorce – which he provided.
But Sager ran afoul of professional standards when he directed a junior lawyer in his firm in the preparation of a will that gave him a portion of J.B.’s estate, the disciplinary panel ruled. According to law society rules, lawyers must not prepare or cause to be prepared any legal instrument giving the lawyer a gift from a client unless that client is a family member.
According to the written ruling, a junior lawyer in his company Sager Legal Advisors prepared a will for J.B. naming Sager as a beneficiary, after Sager realized a potential conflict and backed out of writing the will himself.
But having a junior lawyer in his firm who worked for Sager prepare the will wasn’t enough to address the conflict, according to the panel’s decision.
And while the panel didn’t find any evidence of attempts to manipulate or influence J.B., “the breaches were nonetheless serious,” wrote the panel.
In writing the new will, J.B. revoked an earlier will in which her sister and her sister’s two adult children, a niece and a nephew, would each receive one third of her estate. The new will cut the niece out while including Sager and his sister.
Ultimately, the elderly woman left 24 per cent of her estate each to Sager and his sister. Following, J.B.’s death, Sager received a cheque for his share of the estate amounting to $96,000.
J.B.’s sister made a complaint to the law society in May 2017.
In its ruling last year, the disciplinary panel found Sager’s breach of the rules was “a marked departure from the standard that the law society expects of lawyers and thus amounts to professional misconduct.”
A lawyer’s duty to a client is “necessarily threatened” where a lawyer is a beneficiary of the will being prepared, especially when that client is elderly and infirm as was the case with Sager’s godmother, wrote the law society panel.
Even where the lawyer doesn’t act improperly, “the mere spectre of undue influence may cause harm to the client’s best interests by triggering a challenge to the will or causing disharmony in the client’s family,” wrote the panel.
That risk is especially acute where the lawyer is named as a beneficiary at the expense of other family members who may have had a greater share of the estate under a previous will, the panel wrote.
Sager was also found to have breached rules by accepting a further $75,000 financial gift from J.B. without having her seek independent legal advice.
Sager testified at the original disciplinary hearing that while he “had a policy of not accepting gifts from clients” he “did not think of J.B. as his client” and wasn’t aware of the rule banning lawyers from accepting more than a nominal gift from a client unless that person had received independent legal advice.
But Sager’s actions were a serious breach of the rules, the panel wrote.
“The nature and gravity of [Sager’s] conduct is such that it requires a clear message to be sent ... that such conflicts must be avoided.”
The panel rejected a suspension, however, as none of the actions involved “dishonesty” or repeated acts of “deceit or negligence.”
Reached by the North Shore News on Wednesday, Sager said he is still considering appealing the decisions, although “part of me just wants to forget it and just get on with life.”
“I’m finding this all really difficult to deal with. ... Obviously something like this is completely devastating to one’s life,” he said.
Sager was mayor of West Vancouver in the 1990s. He ran again unsuccessfully in 2018, losing to Mary-Ann Booth by 21 votes.