Lyle Howe (Jessica Durling, The Signal)

“The Hearing Committee of the NOVA SCOTIA BARRISTERS’ SOCIETY gives notice of the disbarment of Lyle Howe of Halifax, Nova Scotia pursuant to Section 45(4)(a) of the Legal Profession Act, effective October 20, 2017 until further notice.”

In the end, the end was no surprise. The end was, in a sense, even perhaps inevitable. But, regardless of your views of the merits of the case against him, the outcome was sad. For Lyle Howe. For the legal profession. For the rest of us.

The short version: On Friday, a three-member panel of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, which had earlier found African Nova Scotian lawyer Lyle Howe guilty of professional misconduct and incompetence after the longest, most expensive hearing in bar society history, passed sentence on him. It ordered Howe disbarred for at least five years and said he must pay the society $150,000 before he is allowed to even apply for reinstatement.

But the panel’s 26-page sanction decision — like its initial ruling on the merits of the case against Howe — is far more nuanced than any simple précis can capture.

While concluding there was “little evidence of actual discriminatory attack” against Howe from other lawyers, judges, and court workers, the panel did find a “connection. Historical and systemic racism explain Mr. Howe’s perception and reaction to what he faced.”

It was that perception and reaction, the panel suggests, that got him into trouble.

“Mr. Howe provided the Panel with a powerful explanation of his behaviour: in summary form, he stated that his background experiences with personal racism, and the impact of systemic and historical racism have made him, at times, respond to situations as a ‘warrior.’ When he is under attack by persons and a system he sees as his oppressor, his response is to attack back. He inherently had a feeling in his mind that the system and those in it were out to get him. Thus, his response was to aggressively push back.”

Howe, a bright, ambitious, young criminal lawyer who grew up on Halifax’s mean streets, had smacked up against racist attitudes in law school and believed he’d also been overlooked in hiring by major local law firms after graduation because of his race.

As an inexperienced sole criminal practitioner, Howe set out to prove himself by taking on way more cases than he could handle. That led to sloppiness with the courts and with clients. His sloppiness got him into trouble with judges and other lawyers, which ultimately led him to what the panel concluded was a pattern of deliberate dishonesty to cover his sloppiness and “minimize his culpability.”

At one level, the bar society tried to help, appointing other more senior white lawyers to oversee his work and advise him on best practices. Howe, the panel says, resisted their efforts, in part because he saw them as part of that oppressive system, and in part because they were charging him dearly for their “services” even as they were advising him to reduce his client load.

An aside. It is not mentioned in either the panel’s original decision or in its sentencing, but the evidence shows that the lawyer and legendary African Nova Scotia human rights icon, the late Rocky Jones, did volunteer at one point to mentor Howe. But the bar society — wanting to “make sure it was somebody of sufficient seniority and knowledge of the rules of ethics and criminal defence that they could provide some solid guidance at our cost” — opted instead to ask a white woman to be Howe’s mentor. For whatever reasons, a bar society official later testified, the mentorship “didn’t work out.”

At the end of the day, the panel decided the impact of racism, real or perceived, could not overcome “the repetitive nature of Mr. Howe’s misconduct, the high level of dishonesty, a demonstrated inability to follow direction, and the fact the misconduct continued in spite of significant interventions by the society and, indeed, even during this hearing.”

The panel says it understands and agrees with Howe’s argument about “the need for the African Nova Scotian community to have access to a person from their community in the criminal justice system. This is especially the case given the over-representation of that community in the criminal justice system… As a result, the Panel has determined… we should only consider the removal of Mr. Howe from practice if that was the only option available to us to address all the appropriate principles of sanctioning. Simply put, we decided that if we could address those principles in any way short of disbarment, we should do so. Unfortunately, we have been unable to come to that conclusion.”

So Howe has now been disbarred for at least five years and required to pay costs that — while far less than the $450-600,000 the bar society had called for — make it unlikely he will ever get back his licence to practice.

Whatever its merits, the end result should be sad for all of us.


Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. I agree with those who say one or the other – disbar ( extreme) and no court costs, or much lower than 150,000$. The outcome is extremely punitive and that extreme smacks of racism.

  2. Who is really surprised by the decision of the all white panel of the bar society?
    There are different standards at play for those who look different and seek to point out the different treatment that they receive.

  3. The legal community is an incestuous, racist and hypocritical little cluster. It’s telling that the Bar Society is asking Howe repay, significantly, more in costs than they asked of Srini Pillay, a lawyer that bilked clients out of in excess of $1 Million. As a Black man who has practiced law in Halifax, I can attest to the fact that Black lawyers confront racism, at every turn (which is why I changed professions). For a Black lawyer to succeed, not only do you have to work twice as hard as white lawyers, you have to keep your mouth shut and shuck and jive for the white massa’s. Moreover, if you call anyone in the profession out on racism, you career will, effectively, come to an end. There are MANY white lawyers who double book, make glaring mistakes, do not show up for court appearances, etc., for the most part their behavior is excused; this is an, obvious, double-standard. Indeed, lawyer, Duane Rhyno, was convicted of operating a vehicle while impaired and faced additional charges in connection with drinking and driving, was charged with one count each of human trafficking, financial gain from human trafficking, aiding and abetting prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution, and sexual assault, twice breached a court order by contacting a woman he was ordered to stay away from in a human trafficking case and has been suspended by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society for professional misconduct on two separate occasions. Rhyno’s licence to practice law was only briefly suspended and was reinstated with restrictions soon after his arrests.

  4. I’ve made professional screwups kind of like the ones Howe made, not for the same reasons, but it sucks to overextend yourself, fail and then have to pick up the pieces. On the other hand, it seems like Howe genuinely screwed up on multiple levels.

    The fundamental problem with any sort of affirmative action or social justice or whatever program which provides people who are lower on the ‘progressive stack’ with lower standards is that the achievements of people in those categories are all tainted. It’s of course, possible to claim that anyone who might think such a thing is a racist and therefore irrelevant – but someone making the argument about ‘white privilege’ is making essentially the same argument – that white people are actually less competent than non-white people of equal socioeconomic status due to an external system. It seems like the common ground between those who criticize ‘white privilege’ or affirmative action is a desire for genuine meritocracy and a lack of trust of the other.

    You could, for instance, perform a thought experiment where there were simply no standards for the behavior of lawyers or other professionals who come from disadvantaged groups. I don’t need to describe the absurdities – oh well, that bridge collapsed, but the professional engineer who designed it is a person of colour, so it was actually racism that killed all those people – if that engineer wasn’t oppressed they could have done their job right, and so on. I’m not presenting this scenario because I believe that anyone actually would make such a case in such an extreme situation, but to point out that objective standards are necessary.

    I will say that fining Howe while cutting him off from his profession is a low blow, and although I have no opinion on whether or not Howe should be disbarred, it seems like it should be one punishment or the other.

    1. Nick, I think your argument rests on a false assumption. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that the standards for Lyle Howe in particular, or lawyers of colour in general, should be lower. What I’ve heard is that the stardards being applied are actually higher and that he has been criticized and eventually disbarred for actions that other (white) lawyers get away with, and that other (white) lawyers have done much worse with a lesser penalty. (The comment of tldrkhnsm below is one example of many I have heard.)

      1. Well, okay – my argument was about refuting the idea, which was presented in many articles about Howe – that he deserved special treatment because of his subjective experience of racism, which could be described as lower standards based on ethnicity. Tldrkhnsm’s comment is news to me – if Howe can show that white lawyers got away with similar or worse behaviour with no or lighter punishment – then that is very different indeed.

    2. Affirmative action policies need not rely upon lower standards. It’s seldom a lack of intelligence or ability that keeps historically disadvantaged people from high achievement. Much more often, it’s a lack to relevant social capital that reduces opportunity.

      The problems highlighted by this specific case don’t imply Mr. Howe lacks the intellect or the ability to do the job of lawyer. As I read it, his critical deficit was a lack of mentorship and/or support from a community of colleagues. Despite their ruling against him, the panel seems to agree.

      If this case tells us anything, it’s that providing only/primarily access to education opportunities in high-training fields doesn’t go far enough. If we want diversity in these professions, we need to also help people transition into the workforce successfully.

  5. He was convicted of sexually assaulting a 19 year old. Sorry but how then does he then become a victim? This smacks of double standards given the current focus on sexual predators.

  6. I’d like to know if white lawyers also double and triple book their appearances in courtrooms. Somehow I think so. I’d like to know why the hearing against Howe cost the Barristers’ Society $1 million — when no other hearing has. I’d like to know why all this venom against Howe — which turned into punishment that the legal ‘community’ has probably not seen in years. I’d like to know why it seems not one lawyer in this province has said the punishment does not fit the crime.

    1. If you followed the CBC feed from their court reporter you would have read much of the evidence. No other hearing has lasted as long as the Howe hearing. If Anne Derrick was annoyed it must have been really bad.

      1. ” There was one year, four and one half months between the first date and closing date of this hearing. The panel sat on 66 hearing days, the vast majority of which were full days, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing near 5 p.m. The transcript contains 12,035 pages. The Panel received
        over 100 exhibits, comprising thousands of pages. We are told this is the longest disciplinary hearing in the history of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. Many may question the length of the hearing, and ask whether that time frame was really necessary. As a result, it is appropriate to make some comment regarding the hearing’s length..”