A Law Society of BC review panel has ruled real estate and immigration lawyer Hong Guo will only be suspended for one year after the legal regulator sought her disbarment for multiple instances of professional misconduct.
Guo is now set to commence her suspension on March 8, unless an alternative date is set by the society, the review panel ruled.
Between January 2014 and March 2016, Guo was determined to have:
- failed to comply with trust accounting rules;
- failed to supervise her bookkeeper, including giving a non-lawyer pre-signed blank trust cheques;
- breached an undertaking; breached a society order; and
- misappropriated $638,689 from a trust account.
The society sought disbarment; however, a disciplinary hearing panel ruled last year she would only be suspended for one year. The society appealed the disciplinary decision but on March 1 the review panel maintained the original suspension.
The society had argued the disciplinary panel did not properly assess the seriousness of the totality of the misconduct and failed to adequately take into consideration the need for denunciation and specific and general deterrence. The society further argued only a disbarment would maintain public confidence in the legal profession.
Guo accepted the findings against her but contested the society’s appeal, claiming the review “must consider charter values, specifically that her disbarment would disproportionately and adversely impact access to justice for members of the Mandarin-speaking community.”
The core of the misconduct relates to Guo’s bookkeeper, who allegedly stole $7.5 million from her trust accounts — noted in proceedings as a "massive theft."
Guo was found to have misappropriated other trust funds to make up for shortfalls, in order to close various real estate transactions. She also provided $2.6 million in family funds to help eliminate the shortages before insurance kicked in.
It was Guo’s use of personal money, which eventually led to transactions being saved and clients being made whole again, that was viewed as the key mitigating factor, or “exceptional circumstance,” that offset the society’s request to disbar her, in the original discipline decision.
“Importantly, the hearing panel concluded the public interest favours a lawyer taking steps to minimize the overall adverse impacts on clients’ trust funds whenever possible, so public interest concerns were not as prominent in assessing penalty,” the review panel noted.
The review panel acknowledged Guo had apologized for her misconduct but also noted she continued to “downplay” her role.
And, the review panel dismissed Guo’s charter arguments.
“Although the impact of discipline of a racialized lawyer on a marginalized group of the public may be a mitigating factor in certain circumstances, those circumstances do not arise here,” stated the decision.
“In our view, the hearing panel was correct to conclude the circumstances were such that the public was protected from future acts of misappropriation by lawyers, including the [Guo], without disbarment,” the review panel stated, adding disbarment is not necessary to protect the public interest.
Also of importance to the review panel is that Guo will be under continued supervision following her suspension until a practice standards committee relieves her of that mandate.
Guo was also ordered to pay costs of $47,329 to the law society.
The citation under review is one of nine Guo has been handed since September 2018. She was suspended for one month last year in relation to one of those citation’s findings.
The Richmond-based lawyer, who also has an office in Beijing, unsuccessfully argued further allegations of misconduct against her were, in part, rooted in anti-Asian discrimination within the Law Society of BC. In that case, a hearing panel ruling from Aug. 24, 2022 found Guo committed professional misconduct by failing to provide competent legal services and engaging in conflicts of interests with her clients, following a complex investigation that she did not fully cooperate with. No discipline decision has been made on that ruling.
Guo, a former legal specialist for the state council of the People’s Republic of China, is facing multiple lawsuits related to business transactions she took part in. She is presently facing an order of incarceration for contempt of court, with proceedings in that matter ongoing.
Guo ran for mayor of Richmond in October 2018, claiming the city needed to reduce crime rates and improve traffic while also promoting more cultural ties and trade with China. She received five per cent of the vote.
What a lawyer can and cannot do while suspended
Should Guo’s suspension begin March 8, she will face significant limits and bans on her practice Guo Law Corporation, according to a society information sheet on lawyer suspensions.
Most obviously, Guo may not appear as counsel for anyone, nor can she draw, revise or settle legal documents, including matters such as wills, corporate applications and estate proceedings.
Guo may not give legal advice directly or indirectly by connecting someone to another lawyer, nor is she allowed to represent herself as qualified to do any such work.
“Suspended lawyers are permitted to attend to certain aspects of the business of the practice of law, provided that in doing so, their actions do not suggest they are qualified or entitled to practice law,” notes the society.
Guo must also “cease marketing or advertising of their practice in newspapers and other media (such as television and radio) during the period of the suspension.”
The society adds, suspended lawyers must “remove or disable any online presence that indicates or implies that the suspended lawyer is a practising lawyer during the period of the suspension. Alternatively, the suspended lawyer should include a prominent notice of the suspension on each online page, with the start and end date of the suspension.”