Category: Ethical Issues
As lawyers, we always have to consider whether we can act for someone before we are retained. Often, the question of whether we are in a conflict is a simple one; however, occasionally, it is more difficult to assess whether we can or more importantly, should, act for someone.
In a recent case, a Plaintiff moved to remove counsel for the Defendant due to a perceived conflict of interest (Gloger v Evans 2018 ONSC 4919).
Otillie and Jochen Gloger, whose children are the parties in this action retained a law firm, to prepare their Wills. Otillie died first and Jochen retained the law firm to prepare a survivorship application with respect to their joint property.
Jochen’s Will named both the Plaintiff and the Defendant in this matter as the Estate Trustees of his Estate and the Estate was divided equally between the Plaintiff and the Defendant.
In this action, following Jochen’s death, the Plaintiff sought to have the Defendant removed as Estate Trustee based on various allegations such as misappropriation of assets and breach of fiduciary duty.
The Defendant retained the law firm to represent her in this action. In turn, the Plaintiff alleged that the firm could not represent the Defendant because there were several conflicts of interest and more importantly, such representation would undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.
The Court considered the test set out in MacDonald Estate v Martin (1990) 3 SCR 1235, which requires that two questions be answered:
- Did the lawyer receive confidential information attributable to a solicitor client relationship relevant to the matter at hand?
- Is there a risk that it will be used to the prejudice of the client?
Because prejudice is difficult to prove, the “test must be such that the public, represented by the reasonably informed person, would be satisfied that no use of confidential information would occur…”.
Analysis and Decision
The Court held that, at its best, the Plaintiff’s evidence was that he and the Defendant initially retained the law firm but that, three days later, he retained his own lawyer. The Plaintiff never met with a lawyer at the law firm but he apparently had a telephone call with someone at the law firm while the Defendant listened in. However, he could not advise whom he spoke with, nor what that person’s occupation was. Furthermore, the Plaintiff did not sign a retainer agreement nor did he provide a retainer.
Given this evidence, the Court held that the Plaintiff did not retain the law firm and was therefore not a former client. Even if he was a former client, however, the Plaintiff stated at his cross-examination that he did not provide any confidential information to the law firm.
The Court did not believe that any confidential information provided by the Deceased, with respect to the Will which named both the Plaintiff and the Defendant as the beneficiaries and Estate Trustees of the Estate, was relevant to this action regarding trustee misconduct, given that the Will was not ambiguous, nor was there a challenge to the Will.
In making this decision, the Court also commented on the importance of the right of the client to be represented by counsel of their choice and that a flexible approach must be taken.
In light of the foregoing, the Court did not consider the second step of the test and dismissed the Plaintiff’s motion for the removal of the law firm, as the Defendant’s counsel.
This case reminds us that it is important to consider whether you should act for someone in the circumstances of each individual case. The above-noted test helps one determine whether a potential conflict of interest may arise.
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One of the major facets underpinning the principles of fundamental justice in Canada is ensuring all parties to a litigation have a voice. The ability of the judicial system to satisfy this burden is often rendered more challenging when the capacity of one of the parties is a central issue in a given proceeding. The recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Sylvester v Britton, 2018 ONSC 6620, provides clarity in respect of the duties and obligations of counsel who are appointed to navigate these issues.
In Sylvester, the Applicant brought an application seeking to be appointed as guardian of property and personal care for her mother, Marjorie. Marjorie had previously appointed two of her sons as her attorneys for property and personal care pursuant to validly-executed powers of attorney.
On consent of all parties, the Public Guardian and Trustee arranged to have a lawyer, Clarke Melville, act for Marjorie on the application in accordance with section 3 of Ontario’s Substitute Decisions Act. Section 3 of the SDA provides that, where the capacity of a person is at issue in a proceeding, that person will be deemed to have the capacity to instruct counsel for the purposes of that proceeding. Accordingly, the Court deemed Marjorie to have the capacity to give instructions to Mr. Melville on the application.
The Applicant disputed this presumption of capacity. She brought a motion seeking, amongst other relief, Mr. Melville’s removal as Marjorie’s section 3 counsel and a declaration that Marjorie was not capable of instructing counsel.
The Applicant’s position on the motion was largely premised on earlier findings of Marjorie’s incapacity. Capacity assessments performed several years earlier had revealed that Marjorie was not capable of managing her property or her personal care. At common law, the test for capacity to manage property and personal care is generally more onerous than the test for capacity to instruct counsel. The Applicant took the position that a finding of incapacity to manage property and personal care was sufficient to establish a lack of capacity to instruct counsel.
The Court disagreed and, in its reasons, highlighted several key points that clarify the role of section 3 counsel in the court process. The purpose of the SDA and of section 3 in particular is to protect vulnerable individuals and to allow them to provide input, to the extent possible, on matters that impact their interests.
However, the Court also stressed that the Rules of Professional Conduct govern all solicitor-client relationships, including relations arising under section 3. Section 3 counsel must carry out all of the duties and obligations to the Court and to the client that other counsel must observe, regardless of the particular vulnerabilities of their client. All counsel have an obligation to canvas the wishes or instructions of their client and to advance the client’s interests. The role of section 3 counsel differs only insofar as it is potentially more likely that he or she will be required to advise the Court if, at any point, counsel no longer believes the client has the capacity to give instructions.
This final point is the salient point that governed the Court’s decision to deny the Applicant’s motion. The Court ultimately held that significant deference ought to be granted to section 3 counsel in assessing a client’s capacity to give instructions. The Rules of Professional Conduct properly govern a lawyer’s duty to all clients and to the Court. As such, no individual will be better positioned to judge an incapable person’s capacity to give instructions than the person to whom the instructions would ordinarily be given.
Accordingly, the Court will only interfere if it is apparent that the client is not able to give instructions and where it is clear that counsel has “strayed from his or her obligations to the client and to the Court.” In all other circumstances, the Court will presume that counsel is acting with the integrity of the court process in mind.
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Does an attorney, or guardian, have the power to change a grantor’s estate plan?
According to section 31(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, a guardian of property (or attorney for property) has the power to do on the incapable person’s behalf anything in respect of property that the person could do if capable, except make a will.
The statute, however, is deceptively simple. Can a guardian transfer property into joint tenancy? Can a guardian sever a joint tenancy? Can a guardian change a beneficiary designation on a RRSP, RRIF or insurance policy? Can an inter vivos trust be established or an estate freeze undertaken to save taxes? There are numerous cases which have tested these issues.
For instance, in Banton v Banton, Justice Cullity found that although the grantor’s attorneys had the authority to create an irrevocable inter vivos trust, they nonetheless breached their fiduciary obligations owing to the grantor, in creating the trust.
The irrevocable trust provided for income and capital at the trustee’s discretion for the grantor’s benefit during his lifetime and a gift over of capital to the grantor’s children, who were also the attorneys. The scheme of distribution of the irrevocable trust was the same as provided for in the grantor’s will. However, the court found that the fact that the remainder interest passed automatically to the grantor’s issue defeated the grantor’s power to revoke his will by marriage and would deprive his common law spouse of potential rights under Parts II and V of the Succession Law Reform Act and Part I of the Family Law Act. The court found that the gift of the remainder of the interest went beyond what was required to protect the grantor’s assets.
Justice Cullity stated:
“I do not share the view that there is an inviolable rule that it is improper for attorneys under a continuing power of attorney to take title to the donor‘s assets either by themselves or jointly with the donor . This must depend upon whether it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so to protect or advance the interest, or otherwise benefit, the donor.”
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On December 15, 2017, I blogged on judicial references to Santa Claus.
Well, the jolly man in red suit has made another (figurative) courtroom appearance: this time in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Santa Claus figures prominently in the decision in Baars v. Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton.
There, the applicants, who were foster parents, refused to utter or affirm the existence or role of Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny) in relation to foster children under their care. As a result, Children’s Aid removed the 3 and 4 year old sisters that were in their home, and closed the applicants’ foster home.
The Applicants applied to the court for a declaration that the Children’s Aid Society violated their freedom of conscience and religion, their freedom of expression, and their right to be free from discrimination., and a declaration that the closure of their foster home was unreasonable, discriminatory and contrary to their fundamental rights and freedoms.
The Applicants advised Children’s Aid that they do not endorse Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny because they did not want to lie to children. Children’s Aid took the position that the foster parents should honour their foster children’s cultural practices. Children’s Aid then arranged for the removal of the children from the home, and closed their foster home.
In deciding the case, the court was careful to note that the ruling did not purport to address certain questions:
This ruling is not about whether parents or guardians ought to promote or discourage the practice of advising young children about Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. It is not about the existence or utility of proclaiming Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny as a part of the secular celebratory rituals that arise at Christmas or Easter respectively. It is neither about offering commentary over the veracity or validity of one’s belief nor offering any commentary on general parenting or guardianship skills. This decision does not purport to advance any criticism or endorsement in relation to Christian or other religious beliefs or values.
The court concluded that the children were removed from the home in direct response to the applicants’ refusal to lie to the children about the Easter Bunny. This was an infringement on the applicants’ freedom of religion, and their freedom of expression.
As a remedy, the court ordered that Children’s Aid note in the applicants’ file that the decision to close the foster home violated the applicants’ Charter rights. If the applicants sought to be adoptive or foster parents in the future, there should be an inquiry into the applicants’ suitability with the court’s ruling in mind.
The Supreme Court of Canada recently refused leave to appeal a decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal that raises the issue of whether old age should be considered as a factor during sentencing.
The appellant had been convicted of fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, and laundering the proceeds of crime at the direction of or in association with a criminal organization. A prior appeal regarding the conviction itself had been dismissed by the Quebec Court of Appeal.
The Lower Court recognized the role of the appellant as a directing mind of a criminal organization and the losses suffered by the government as a result of his fraudulent acts. The Court had stated that age, even if it could be taken into account, was “only one factor among many”, which “cannot have a determinative impact because of the great number of aggravating factors”.
The appellant subsequently sought leave to appeal his four-year prison sentence. The appellant asserted that, at 81 years of age and in a poor state of health, his sentence ought to be replaced with a conditional sentence to be served in the community or otherwise limited in duration to allow him the prospect of life after prison.
The Quebec Court of Appeal summarized the law as it relates to the consideration of age during sentencing as follows (at paras 38, 39, 42, 43):
The advanced age of an accused must be taken into account when determining a sentence, as Chief Justice Lamer indicated in R. v. M. (C.A.)…
The age factor must, however, be considered in light of the health of the offender as it relates to his life expectancy. Consequently, the mere fact that an accused is elderly is not, in and of itself, a mitigating factor in determining a prison sentence, unless the evidence reveals that he has little chance of serving the sentence before passing away. This is increasingly true with the general aging of the Canadian population and the raised probability of longer life expectancies.
As a result, if at the time a sentence is imposed, the offender’s state of health does not suggest that he is unlikely to complete the sentence before his demise, the judge then has the necessary discretion to impose an appropriate sentence in light of all the usual factors and criteria…
It is possible that an offender’s state of health deteriorates following sentencing. This possibility increases with the age of the offender. The sentencing judge may not, however, speculate on this subject and must determine the sentence in accordance with the evidence before him when it is rendered…
The Court nevertheless considered the prison sentence to be appropriate, notwithstanding the expectation of the appellant that he may not survive it. The Supreme Court agreed with the reasons of the Quebec Court of Appeal.
With Canada’s aging population, cases like this, in which an individual convicted of a crime is elderly and/or in a poor state of health, can be expected to increase in frequency. The Supreme Court has confirmed that (for the time being at least), while age is a factor to be considered during sentencing, it is merely one to be assessed among others, rather than being determinative of the issue.
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Previously on our blog and podcast, we discussed Tarantino v. Galvano, 2017 ONSC 3535 (S.C.J.) in the context of the counterclaim for quantum meruit and the costs decision of the Hon. Justice Kristjanson.
Tarantino v. Galvano arose from a lawsuit that was commenced by two out of three Estate Trustees against the third Estate Trustee, Nellie, with respect to her actions as attorney for property for the Deceased, Rosa (i.e. Nellie’s actions while the Deceased was still alive but incapable of managing her own property).
Rosa had two daughters, Nellie and Giuseppina. Giuseppina died before Rosa. Guiseppina’s daughters were the other two Estate Trustees and they are beneficiaries of the Rosa’s Estate along with Nellie. For the better part of her life, Nellie lived with Rosa. She took care of her mother after her father’s death. Nellie and her son were also Rosa’s caregivers as Rosa’s health declined until Rosa’s death in 2012.
Rosa and Nellie owned the home that they lived in together. Rosa held an 80.3% interest and Nellie held an 19.62% interest. Pursuant to Rosa’s 2005 Will, Nellie had a right of first refusal to purchase the home from Rosa’s Estate. In 2008, on the advice of counsel while Rosa was incapable, Nellie entered into an agreement between herself and Rosa. The agreement provided for a transfer of Rosa’s interest in the home and 75% of Rosa’s pension income to Nellie in exchange for Nellie’s caregiving services. The agreement was in writing and it was signed by Nellie. Nellie signed for herself and for Rosa, in her capacity as Rosa’s attorney for property.
Even though the Court found that Nellie was a good daughter who held up her end of the bargain by caring for Rosa, the agreement was set aside because it was a self-dealing transaction that did not meet the requirements of the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992:
“ Under the Substitute Decisions Act, Nellie could only enter into the agreement to transfer the house and pension income if it was “reasonably necessary” to provide for Rosa’s care, which I find it was not. As a fiduciary, an attorney for property is “obliged to act only for the benefit of [the donor], putting her own interests aside”: Richardson Estate v. Mew, 2009 ONCA 403 (CanLII), 96 O.R. (3d) 65, at para. 49. An attorney is prohibited from using the power for their own benefit unless “it is done with the full knowledge and consent of the donor”: Richardson Estate, at paras. 49-50. Rosa lacked capacity at the time of the Agreement, and the transfer of the house and pension income therefore were not done with Rosa’s full knowledge and consent.”
The “reasonably necessary” test was assessed, as of the time of the transfer, rather than from hindsight and it was determined that the decision to transfer 80.3% of a home and 80% of Rosa’s pension income at the outset of care was “an imprudent agreement which benefitted Nellie beyond that ‘reasonably necessary’ to provide adequately for Rosa’s care” (see paragraphs 34-49 for the Court’s analysis of this issue).
As a set off, Nellie’s quantum meruit claim was successful and you can click here for Ian Hull and Noah Weisberg’s podcast on this particular issue. While there was blended success to all parties involved, none of the three Estate Trustees were entitled to indemnification. Our discussion of the denial of costs can be found here and the Endorsement can be found here.
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Section 241.1 of the Criminal Code sets out a detailed procedure for determining when medical assistance in dying can be provided. However, the medical and legal communities are still grappling with the application of the provisions.
In A.B. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 ONSC 3759 (CanLII), two physicians concluded that AB met the criteria for a medically assisted death. A third doctor, however, did not, as he felt that AB did not meet the Criminal Code requirement that a natural death was reasonably foreseeable. Although only two medical opinions are required, the opinion of the third doctor had a chilling effect on one of the other physicians, who declined to provide assistance to AB for fear of being charged with murder.
AB then applied to court for a determination that she met the requirements of the Criminal Code, and a declaration that she may receive medical assistance in dying.
Justice Perell, who had previously considered the issue of assisted death in another proceeding, heard the application.
Ontario and Canada took the position that a declaration should not issue, as the regime established by the Criminal Code does not require judicial pre-authorization. Further, the civil courts should not issue a declaration as such a declaration would interfere with the prosecutorial discretion of the Crown by predetermining criminal liability.
Justice Perell agreed with the position of Ontario and Canada. However, he felt that their position was “as unhelpful as it is technically correct.” The practical effect of such a position was that AB qualified for medically assisted death, but no physician was prepared to assist.
In his decision, Perell J. thoroughly reviews the legislative history of medical assistance in dying. He agrees that it is the medical practitioner and not the court that is to decide whether the Criminal Code criteria are satisfied. He agrees that the court cannot make the decision for them.
However, Perell J. expresses that some form of declaration would be “useful” and have “utility”.
Perell J. walks a fine line in his decision. He accepts that the court is not to make declarations that the Criminal Code criteria for assisted death are met: that must be done by the medical practitioner or nurse practitioner: s. 241.2(3)(a). What Perell J. does, however, is attempt to clarify what is meant by s. 241.(2)(d): the provision that requires the person to meet the criteria that “their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable”. As a matter of statutory interpretation, he declares that in AB’s case, AB’s natural death is reasonably foreseeable.
Perell J. cautions that in making a declaration, he is not conferring immunity on the physicians from prosecution. He also states that he is not finding that courts could or should grant pre-approvals for persons seeking medical assistance in dying. It is unclear as to whether this will provide much comfort to medical practitioners.
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A few weeks ago, I received a voicemail from a robotic sounding voice that had me chuckling. According to the robot, court proceedings had been started against me for failure to pay my taxes. If I didn’t immediately call them back, they would issue an arrest warrant to “get [me] arrested”. While I laughed at the absurdity of the message, the sad reality is that many people fall prey to scammers.
Elderly people can be especially appealing targets for scammers and abusers due to a mix of factors, including social isolation. A recent CBC news article out of Moncton highlights the type of financial abuse to which elderly people may fall prey. The CBC reported that two real estate agents entered into a listing agreement in 2013 with an elderly man. They eventually entered into a further agreement allowing the real estate agents to purchase the home for three quarters of the listing price and requiring the victim to provide an interest-free loan to the agents along with credits towards the purchase price. Overall, the victim received approximately $17,000.00 in exchange for his home.
Not only were the real estate agents able to scam the victim on the sale of his home, the victim also named the two agents as his attorneys for property and as trustees and sole beneficiaries of his estate under his Will.
Eventually, the abuse was discovered when doctors determined the man lacked capacity to make decisions and contacted New Brunswick’s public trustee office. The public trustee’s office, in turn, passed along news of what happened to New Brunswick’s regulator for real estate agents, who have now suspended the licences of the agents for at least one year.
This story showcases just one of the ways in which a person might become a victim of financial abuse. Elderly people without the social support of family members or strong community ties may be especially vulnerable to this abuse. This story also highlights, however, the important role 3rd parties can play in catching and preventing elder abuse. This can be seen by the intervention of hospital staff, the public trustee office, and the professional regulators.
While the article doesn’t explain whether the victim had his power of attorney and will drafted by a lawyer, this article will hopefully also serve as a reminder to drafting solicitors to probe these issues when retained by clients who may be vulnerable to undue influence and abuse.
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The interplay between evolving social norms and the legal foundations that predate or accelerate these changes has seen significant development in the last decade. Courts of law and of public opinion have made important strides in shaping social policy in many areas, such as medically-assisted death, gender diversity and inclusion, and marriage rights, to name a few. A recent case out of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered this last issue, marriage rights, with a particular focus on predatory marriages.
In Hunt v Worrod, 2017 ONSC 7397, the Court was tasked with assessing whether an individual who had suffered a catastrophic brain injury possessed the necessary capacity to marry. In 2011, Kevin Hunt suffered a serious head injury following an ATV accident and spent four months recuperating in hospital. He was eventually discharged into the care of his two sons, but three days after his release, Mr. Hunt was whisked away by his on-and-off girlfriend, Kathleen Worrod, to be ostensibly married at a secret wedding ceremony.
Mr. Hunt’s children brought an application to the Court on his behalf to void the marriage, partly to preclude Ms. Worrod from accruing spousal rights to share in Mr. Hunt’s property or assets. Ultimately, the Court concluded that Mr. Hunt did not possess the requisite capacity to enter into the marriage.
In its reasons, the Court relied heavily on the opinions of several expert witnesses and the existing body of legal authority. The Court began by reviewing section 7 of Ontario’s Marriage Act, which provides that an officiant shall not “solemnize the marriage” of any person that the officiant has reasonable grounds to believe “lacks mental capacity to marry.”
The expert evidence tendered by the parties suggested that Mr. Hunt had significant impairments in his ability to make decisions, to engage in routine problem-solving, and to organize and carry out simple tasks. He was characterized as “significantly cognitively impaired”, and was assessed as being incapable of managing his property, personal care, or safety and well-being.
The Court subsequently relied on the test for capacity to enter into a marriage contract established by the British Columbia Supreme Court in Ross-Scott v Potvin in 2014. The Court held that a person has the capacity to enter into a marriage contract only if that person has the capacity to understand the duties and obligations created by marriage and the nature of the commitment more generally.
The Court also identified the tension between balancing Mr. Hunt’s autonomy as against the possibility that he lacked the capacity to appreciate the legal and social consequences of marriage. Ultimately, the Court was satisfied that Mr. Hunt’s children had met their burden of demonstrating that their father lacked the necessary capacity to marry Ms. Worrod. The marriage was declared void ab initio, and the attendant spousal property rights that would have otherwise flowed to Ms. Worrod were lost.
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For many Canadians, one or more life insurance policies represent an important component of an estate plan. If a policy cannot be honoured as a result of the cause of the insured’s death, this may completely frustrate his or her testamentary wishes.
The terms of life insurance policies typically address the issue of whether a beneficiary will be entitled to the insurance proceeds in the event that an individual commits suicide. Policy terms typically include a restriction as to the payout of the policy if the insured dies by his or her own hands within a certain of number of years from the date on which the policy is taken out (most often two years).
With the decriminalization of physician-assisted death, there was initially some concern regarding whether medical assistance in dying would be distinguished from suicide for the purposes of life insurance. The preamble to the related federal legislation, however, distinguishes between the act of suicide and obtaining medical assistance in dying.
As mentioned by Suzana Popovic-Montag in a recent blog entry, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association suggested in 2016 that, if a Canadian follows the legislated process for obtaining medial assistance in dying, life insurance providers will pay out on policies that are less than two years old. Since then, the Medical Assistance in Dying Statute Law Amendment Act, 2017 has come into force to provide protection and clarity for Ontario patients and their families. This legislation has resulted in amendments to various provincial legislation, including the Excellent Care for All Act, 2010, a new section of which now reads as follows:
…the fact that a person received medical assistance in dying may not be invoked as a reason to deny a right or refuse a benefit or any other sum which would otherwise be provided under a contract or statute…unless an express contrary intention appears in the statute.
The amendments provided for within the legislation introduced by the Ontario government represent an important step in the recognition of physician-assisted death as a right that is distinguishable from the act of suicide. They also confirm the right of individuals who access medical assistance in dying to benefit their survivors with life insurance policies or other benefits.
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