The Right of an Estate Trustee to Waive Privilege: Not Absolute
Communications between a client and their lawyer are protected by solicitor-client privilege. Except in limited circumstances, only the client can waive the privilege.
Upon death, the right to waive privilege passes to the estate trustee named in the will, or appointed by the court if there is no will.
Is the right to waive privilege absolute, applying to all solicitor-client communications? According to a decision of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, the answer is No.
In Dumke v. Conrad, 2019 NSSC 310 (CanLII), the deceased died without a will. Her son applied for and was appointed as administrator of the deceased’s estate. He was the sole beneficiary.
Prior to the deceased’s death, the son was attorney for property for the deceased. The deceased regained capacity and brought a proceeding to declare the power of attorney in favour of the son invalid, and to compel the son to pass his accounts. That litigation was resolved.
Following the death of his mother, the son sought to obtain the lawyer’s file relating to the power of attorney litigation. The lawyer then brought an application for directions, with the question being whether the son was entitled to the litigation file.
The court held that the right to waive privilege is not absolute. The files sought must be relevant to an issue being decided or to the ability of the personal representative to administer the estate. Confidentiality “should not be interfered with except to the extent necessary and the right of the respondent to waive privilege must be interpreted restrictively.”
A deceased person could have criminal files, child protection files, divorce files, etc. If a person seeking advice from a lawyer knew that, after their death, their children would have access to those files, the free, confident, candid communication necessary between a lawyer and client would not occur. The basis of solicitor/client privilege would be eroded. As stated above in Descôteaux, the right to counsel would be imperfect if the privilege is eroded or frittered away.
The court could not find any reason why the files being sought would be relevant to the administration of the estate. Rather, it found that the files being sought were for “personal reasons not relevant to the administration of the estate”.
The court ordered that the file in relation to the power of attorney litigation not be disclosed.
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