Lawyer free to practise after inappropriate conduct with jailed client, tribunal rules

A Toronto criminal defence lawyer who admitted to professional misconduct for engaging in inappropriate behaviour with a client in custody on a terrorism charge is back in full unrestricted practice.

A Law Society of Ontario tribunal decision issued in February imposed a retroactive two-month suspension on Rishma Gupta, but ruled she doesn’t require further punishment due to her circumstances and remorse.

“Gupta’s non-compliance with correctional facility policies is serious misconduct. Forming a non-professional intimate relationship with a client can be (and was) problematic for a number of reasons,” the decision stated.

“Looking only at the misconduct, a significant suspension is justifiable. On the other hand, looking at Gupta, her circumstances, her personal history, the consequences of her misconduct that she has already experienced, her subsequent rehabilitative efforts, and her clear remorse provide powerful reasons for a much-diminished penalty,” it said.

Gupta was also ordered to pay $5,000 in costs by June 20, 2023.

In May and June 2018, Gupta was observed by jail guards to be violating jail policies around physical touch as she interacted with her client Pamir Hakimzadah at Toronto South Detention Centre (TSDC), where he was being held on a terrorism charge, accused of leaving Canada to try and join ISIS militants fighting in Syria.    

Gupta did not respond to interview requests about the tribunal and its findings, and her lawyer declined to comment.

Caught on camera

Interactions between the two, recorded by CCTV, included several incidents. 

During one meeting with her client, Gupta “lowered herself four times beneath the interview table with a white charging cable in her hand,” the tribunal decision said, before rising a few seconds later, still holding the charger in her hand. 

“On three of these occasions, she was playfully pushing against her client’s legs, which she acknowledges was inappropriate,” it said. 

“On the fourth occasion, she engaged in brief but inappropriate consensual intimate contact with her client, when she rubbed the clothed inner knee with her hand.”

Pamir Hakimzadah was given a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to a terrorist offence in February 2019. (Facebook)

On other occasions on different days, Hakimzadah was seen to be “reaching out, stroking and holding” Gupta’s hand, the decision said.

In July 2018, the superintendent of the TDSC complained to the Law Society about Gupta’s conduct, which triggered the investigation. 

Gupta promised to stop practising as of Sept. 4, 2018, and ultimately didn’t practise for 19 months.

Gupta — who passed the bar in 2014 — returned to practice under a senior lawyer’s supervision in June 2020, working under restrictions until the release of the tribunal decision.

Remorse demonstrated

Law Society counsel Suzanne Jarvie had asked for a three-month suspension while Gupta’s lawyer, Nadia Liva, sought a reprimand for her client.

“That she has endured all of this and has the courage and determination to return to practice is to her credit,” the tribunal decision stated.

“We were moved and impressed by her efforts and her statement … which powerfully demonstrated remorse, acceptance of responsibility and understanding of the effect of her misconduct.

“Her statement was apparently heartfelt, emotional and moving.”

Gupta was retained by Hakimzadah after he was charged in April 2017 with one count of leaving Canada to participate in a terrorist activity. 

By May and June 2018, she was spending 60 hours a month with Hakimzadah, the time spread over 15 visits, each lasting three to four hours in length.

She felt afraid to “reject her client’s gestures and physical contact,” the tribunal decision said, because she feared losing the client. 

A forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Lisa Ramshaw, told the tribunal “there was evident sexual tension between Gupta and the client over time.”

History considered

The tribunal also took into consideration Gupta’s history, noting she “took on the role of the head of the family” as a teenager after certain family members were criminally charged. She also struggled with  eating disorders and was sexually abused over several years during that time.

By 2018, she was also dealing with momentous change in her personal life. She had left her law firm to start a solo practice and her near-20-year marriage was failing. (She has since reconciled with her husband.)

“While not excusing her conduct, Ms. Gupta’s family history, her marital situation and her situation with her firm provide relevant context for her misconduct in May and June 2018,” the tribunal stated.

Psychotherapist Dorothy Ratusny assessed that Gupta “exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which have persisted throughout her adult life and which were debilitating during 2018.”

She further noted that Gupta had “symptoms of persistent depressive disorder, including sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, trouble concentrating and making everyday decisions (specifically in her personal life.)”

But Gupta’s hard work in therapy has “allowed her to establish and maintain personal and professional boundaries,” said Ratusny, noting that the lawyer strives to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

Client tried to join ISIS militants

Hakimzadah was given a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to the terrorist offence in February 2019, serving an additional six months on top of the 43 months he had already spent in custody. 

Hakimzadah admitted he had left Canada to try and join ISIS on Oct. 22, 2014 — the same day that Parliament Hill was attacked by a gunman, killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he stood guard at the National War Memorial.

Court heard Hakimzadah, now 32, flew from Toronto to Amsterdam, then travelled to Istanbul the next day with the intent of crossing the border into Syria. 

“Pamir considered whether or not ISIS was prophesized in the Qur’an and whether they would bring justice to all Muslims in the Middle East,” Crown attorney Chris Walsh told Justice John McMahon at his trial. 

Hakimzadah’s plan was foiled when a Turkish cab driver suspected “he was trying to join ISIS and turned him over to the police,” court heard.

Turkish authorities deported him back to Canada on Nov. 19, 2014, and banned him from entering Turkey for one year. After he returned, the young man “privately admitted that he left Canada for the purposes of contributing to the fight for Allah but authorities caught and detained him,” Walsh said.

A family member reported Hakimzadah to police here.

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