Winnipeg explosion sparks national safety discussion

Family law practitioners re-assessing safety procedures in light of letter bombs, including one that severely injured Winnipeg lawyer

Members of a bomb unit and emergency crews investigate a possible explosion at a law firm in Winnipeg on Friday, July 3, 2015. Trevor Hagan/CP

Members of a bomb unit and emergency crews investigate a possible explosion at a law firm in Winnipeg on Friday, July 3, 2015. Trevor Hagan/CP

TORONTO – Family law practitioners across the country are re-assessing the steps they take to protect themselves in the wake of letter bombs being mailed to Winnipeg lawyers by a man who allegedly targeted those involved in his divorce proceedings.

Last week’s events, which emphasized the particular set of risks faced by those in family law, also have the Canadian Bar Association preparing to circulate information on safety measures to those in the field.

But amidst the emphasis on taking precautions, Maria Mitousis, the lawyer who was severely injured by one of the Winnipeg letter bombs, is urging her colleagues not to retreat from their profession.

“The message she wanted to get out to the public and to family law lawyers particularly is ‘don’t stop what you’re doing because of what happened to me. The service we provide is important,'” said Sofia Mirza, president of the Manitoba Bar Association, who has been in touch with Mitousis’ family.

“It was really important to her to get that message out.”

Guido Amsel, 49, is accused of sending letter bombs to two Winnipeg law firms and his ex-wife.

The first bomb, made up of a small voice recorder packed with an explosive compound, exploded last Friday, severely injuring Mitousis, who represented Amsel’s former spouse in their lengthy divorce and a lawsuit in which she claimed her former husband owed her $40,000 from an auto body shop they had jointly run while married.

The second bomb was found last Saturday at an auto repair shop where Amsel’s ex-wife works, and was detonated by police. The third bomb was found at a law office where a lawyer who once represented Amsel used to work.

For some lawyers in Winnipeg, the incident led them to review their own files to assess if their cases had the potential to turn violent, said Mirza.

The Winnipeg events also sparked a broader chat among those practising family law.

“We are definitely having a national conversation about safety,” said Patricia Hebert, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s family law section.

Most in the profession have experienced verbal abuse and even death threats in the course of their work, but last week’s violence rattled many in the field, she said.

“We’re all in those circumstances on a regular basis where we have somebody on the other side who may feel like this fellow felt,” said Hebert. “This is a reminder that we do need to take our own personal safety seriously.”

The steps lawyers can take to increase their safety can be as simple as not opening suspicious packages, not sharing home addresses and personal phone numbers and sitting closest to the door when in a meeting with a potentially volatile individual.

The precautions are worth taking because those in family law routinely deal with people at the most vulnerable point in their lives, Hebert said.

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “We have the person on the other side of the family law file who sees us as part of the problem…It requires a huge skill set to be able to manage people in these really extraordinary times in their lives.”

Andrew Feldstein, who has worked in family law for 21 years, said what happened to Mitousis has simply underscored the importance of taking small steps to stay safe.

The Markham, Ont.-based lawyer once received two death threats in three months, one of which involved someone drawing a hangman figure on a wall outside his office with the message “see you soon Andrew.”

“It makes you a little more paranoid,” he said of the incidents.”You don’t necessarily take the same route to work everyday, you do have security precautions put in place in your office and you try to be smart with how you do things, but it does impact you.”

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