We have previously blogged extensively on the issue of inaccessibility of digital assets and the absence of legislation in Canadian provinces, including Ontario, to clarify the rights of a fiduciary to access and administer digital assets on behalf of a deceased or incapable rights holder.
While the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, and Estates Administration Act provide that attorneys or guardians of properties and estate trustees, respectively, are authorized to manage the property of an incapable person or an estate, Ontario does not currently have any legislation that clarifies these rights by explicit reference to digital assets. While continuing powers of attorney for property and wills can be crafted to explicitly refer to digital assets and the authority of an attorney for property or estate trustee to access accounts and information in the same manner in which the user him or herself was able, access issues can still arise during incapacity or after death.
A recent CBC article highlights the inadequacy of legislation facilitating access to digital assets. A surviving wife of over forty years was the estate trustee and sole residuary beneficiary of her late husband’s estate. In seeking access to an Apple account that she shared with her husband, she was told that she would require a court order, even after providing Apple with a copy of her husband’s death certificate and will. Apple cited the United States’ Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which predates the prominence of computers and the internet in our daily lives, as prohibiting them from distributing personal electronic information. Four years after her husband’s death in 2016, the Ontario woman is now obtaining pro bono assistance in seeking a court order granting access to the shared account in the absence of any other options.
It is anticipated that the adoption of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada’s Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act would resolve some or all of the issues currently faced by Ontario residents in accessing and administering digital assets. However, now over four years since its release, only Saskatchewan has implemented provincial legislation mirroring the language of the uniform act.
It will be interesting to see in coming years whether legislative updates will address continued barriers to the access and administration of digital assets and the corresponding access to justice issue.
Thank you for reading,
Other blog entries that may be of interest:
Last week, we blogged on serious deficiencies recently observed in long-term care facilities in Ontario and elsewhere in the country as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Improvement of conditions in long-term care homes has long been on the radar for many Canadian provinces even prior to Covid-19. The recent pandemic has highlighted many of the shortcomings of long-term care and provided the much-needed impetus for all levels of government to rethink ways to improve living conditions for residents.
One of the key issues highlighted by the pandemic is the reliance many residents have on family and friends to supply necessities such as food, clothing, and personal care items. Thinking about this led me to consider another important supply chain that may be suspended for residents of long-term care facilities; the supply of medical and recreational marijuana.
Prior to the Cannabis Act, S.C. 2018, c. 16, which came into effect on October 17, 2018, it was illegal to possess, obtain, produce, traffic, and import or export cannabis, except for cannabis for medical consumption. The new regime decriminalized the recreational use of cannabis, while regulations dealing with medical cannabis remained in place. The Cannabis Act was introduced for a number of reasons, one of which was to protect public health and safety to allow adults legal access to marijuana.
With the decriminalization of recreational marijuana came the loosening of stigmas surrounding marijuana consumption. A growing body of scientific studies suggest that marijuana presents a number of health benefits when used appropriately, such as relief of chronic pain, improved lung capacity, and the alleviation of feelings of anxiety and/or depression. The number of seniors using cannabis since 2012 has increased tenfold, with 52% of seniors reporting using cannabis exclusively for medical reasons, 24% for non-medical reasons, and 24% for both medical and non-medical. Unfortunately, accessing and storing marijuana is not as easy for seniors in long-term care as it is for most adults.
Notwithstanding the new regime, medical cannabis is still required to be purchased from a federally licensed producer by doctor’s order. For many residents, their primary care physician is the resident physician in their long-term care home. Naturally, not all practitioners are comfortable prescribing medical marijuana, meaning residents who prefer to consume marijuana must travel offsite to obtain such prescriptions. Even if a resident is able to obtain medical marijuana, individual long-term care facilities may have different policies in place regarding the delivery and storage of marijuana.
For some, the introduction of the Cannabis Act alleviated some of the above-noted issues by making it easier for family members and friends to purchase and deliver cannabis to residents. Given that OHIP does not cover medical marijuana, there is no financial downside to purchasing recreational cannabis (that is supplied by the Ontario Cannabis Store) rather than medical marijuana. Irrespective of their intention for use, residents in long-term care facilities should enjoy the same accessibility to marijuana as others.
Perhaps this is yet another issue that the government will consider when revitalizing and improving living standards for residents in long-term care facilities.
Thank you for reading!
A special thanks to Jane Meadus and Professor Lorian Hardcastle for their presentation on Marijuana Use in Assisted Living and Long-Term Care Facilities through the Canadian Bar Association on March 12, 2020.
The way that we practice law has shifted rapidly over these past couple of weeks as we social distance ourselves. This includes the adoption of electronic means of communication such as video conferencing for things that would have seemed impossible only a couple of weeks ago such as the witnessing of Wills or the commissioning of affidavits. There has also been a significant expansion of the courts hearing matters virtually, with the court currently hearing urgent matters virtually through the use of video conferencing or conference calls with the scope of what is being heard appearing to be expanded.
Although, generally speaking, I believe that most legal practitioners would likely be in agreement that the court and/or the various administrative bodies have responded fairly quickly to implementing new electronic methods and means of practicing law under trying times, this does not necessarily mean that the shift to the more virtual form of practicing law is not without its hiccups or concerns.
One of the areas that may need further consideration is the application of the “open court” principle if hearings are to shift to being heard virtually. It is generally accepted that a fundamental principle of our justice system is that the courts are open to being attended by anyone in the general public, with the court only restricting the general public’s access to attend and/or review a matter under very limited circumstances. As matters shift to being heard virtually, with a potential attendee to a video and/or telephone conference likely needing an access code to attend the matter, is there the risk that the “open court” principle could be impacted?
The Toronto Star recently reported about the steps and efforts that they were having to take to still be provided with electronic access to matters before the court during the pandemic. Although the article notes that they were having difficulty being provided with access for certain matters, it noted that they had been successful in obtaining electronic access to matters in others. Hopefully as time progresses any issues are able to be worked out.
One unknown element is whether any of these changes will become permanent after the pandemic has subsided. If elements such as virtual hearings should become more permanent steps will likely need to be taken to ensure that as part of the more permanent shift to virtual and electronic hearings that the “open court” principle is not lost.
Thank you for reading and stay safe and healthy.
Recent amendments to Canada’s Divorce Act will come into effect on July 1, 2020. While many of these changes may not be directly relevant to estate law, estate practitioners may nevertheless wish to familiarize themselves with these developments before July.
The amendments introduced under Bill C-78 serve a number of objectives, including the advancement of the best interests of the child and increased access to justice. They can be briefly summarized as follows:
- New criteria, independent of the Children’s Law Reform Act, in respect of the best interests of the child, taking into account the child’s views and preferences;
- Updates to terminology designed to enhance access to justice and focus on the responsibilities of parents owed to their children: for example, custody orders will soon be referred to as “parenting orders”, and access will instead be known as “contact”;
- The removal of presumptions as to equal parenting time and maximum contact being in the best interests of the child.
The new Divorce Act also imposes a duty upon counsel to encourage family dispute resolution unless clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, in a manner consistent with Rule 3.2-4 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Some provinces are expected as a result to introduce legislation providing judges with the discretion to direct parties to family mediation and/or parenting coordination (as has already happened in British Columbia).
Bill C-78 has also resulted in updates to the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act. This act, which already facilitates access to information held by financial institutions with respect to the assets of debtors, will soon permit access to income information from Canada Revenue Agency for the purposes of recalculating support. The enhanced act is expected to reduce costs to parties and to courts of obtaining necessary disclosure.
Thank you for reading.
Other blog entries that may be of interest:
While digital assets constitute “property” in the sense appearing within provincial legislation, the rights of fiduciaries in respect of these assets are less clear than those relating to tangible assets. For example, in Ontario, the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, and Estates Administration Act provide that attorneys or guardians of property and estate trustees, respectively, are authorized to manage the property of an incapable person or estate, but these pieces of legislation do not explicitly refer to digital assets.
As we have previously reported, although the Uniform Law Conference of Canada introduced the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act in August 2016, the uniform legislation has yet to be adopted by the provinces of Canada. However, recent legislative amendment in one of Ontario’s neighbours to the west has recently enhanced the ability of estate trustees to access and administer digital assets.
In Alberta, legislation has been updated to clarify that the authority of an estate trustee extends to digital assets. Alberta’s Estate Administration Act makes specific reference to “online accounts” within the context of an estate trustee’s duty to identify estate assets and liabilities, providing clarification that digital assets are intended to be included within the scope of estate assets that a trustee is authorized to administer.
In other Canadian provinces, fiduciaries continue to face barriers in attempting to access digital assets. Until the law is updated to reflect the prevalence of technology and value, whether financial or sentimental, of information stored electronically, it may be prudent for drafting solicitors whose clients possess such assets to include specific provisions within Powers of Attorney for Property and Wills to clarify the authority of fiduciaries to deal with digital assets.
Thank you for reading.
Other blog posts that may be of interest:
Canada’s model legislation regarding digital assets, the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act (the “Canadian Model Act”), was introduced in August 2016, and borrows heavily from its American predecessor, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “American Model Act”).
The Canadian Model Act defines a “digital asset” as “a record that is created, recorded, transmitted or stored in digital or other intangible form by electronic, magnetic or optical means or by any other similar means.” As with the definition appearing within the American Model Act, this definition does not include title to an underlying asset, such as securities as digital assets. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not define the terms “information” or “record.”
In the Canadian Model Act, the term “fiduciary” is also defined similarly as in the American Model Act, restricting the application of both pieces of model legislation to four kinds of fiduciary: personal representatives, guardians, attorneys appointed under a Power of Attorney for Property, and trustees appointed to hold a digital asset in trust.
One challenge that both pieces of model legislation attempt to address is the delicate balance between the competing rights to access and privacy. The American Model Act is somewhat longer in this regard, as it addresses provisions of American privacy legislation to which there is no equivalent in Canada. Canadian law does not treat fiduciary access to digital assets as a “disclosure” of personal information. Accordingly, under Canadian law, the impact on privacy legislation by fiduciary access to digital assets is relatively limited.
The Canadian Model Act provides a more robust right of access to fiduciaries. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not authorize custodians of digital assets to choose the fiduciary’s level of access to the digital asset. Section 3 of the Canadian Model Act states that a fiduciary’s right of access is subject instead to the terms of the instrument appointing the fiduciary, being the Power of Attorney for Property, Last Will and Testament, or Court Order.
Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian equivalent has a “last-in-time” priority system. The most recent instruction concerning the fiduciary’s right to access a digital asset takes priority over any earlier instrument. For example, an account holder with a pre-existing Last Will and Testament, who chooses to appoint a Facebook legacy contact is restricting their executor’s right to access their Facebook account after death pursuant to the Will.
Despite their differences, both pieces of model legislation serve the same purpose of facilitating access by attorneys for or guardians of property and estate trustees to digital assets and information held by individuals who are incapable or deceased and represent steps in the right direction in terms of updating estate and incapacity law to reflect the prevalence of digital assets in the modern world.
Thank you for reading,
Accessing a Testator’s digital assets can be fraught with difficulty. Part of this difficulty involves the service agreements between the Testator and the service provider. These agreements often prevent the service provider from disclosing the Testator’s personal information.
Recently, Florida, following a trend in the United States, passed Bill SB 494, now known as the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the ‘Act’). The legislation defines a digital asset as “……an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest. The term does not include an underlying asset or liability unless the asset or liability is itself an electronic record.” It also provides of a definition of a fiduciary, which means “an original, additional, or successor personal representative, guardian, agent, or trustee.”
The Act appears to have two main purposes. It confers authority upon appointed fiduciaries to access and manage both digital assets and electronic records. The legislation also allows custodians of this information to disclose it to appointed fiduciaries where the procedural requirements have been met.
The Act includes a priority system for an individual to control the disclosure or non-disclosure of any or all of their digital assets or electronic communications. Depending on the circumstances, a direction for disclosure given through the use of an online tool may override a direction embodied in a Testator’s estate planning documents.
This Act incorporates model legislation drafted by the Uniform Law Commission. The draft legislation is currently being considered by a number of other state legislatures. The Act is effective in Florida as of July 1, 2016 and may apply retroactively to some individuals in certain capacities.
Thanks for reading.
"Some day, a wise person in a position of authority will realize that a court of law is not the best forum for deciding custody and access disputes, where principles of common sense masquerade as principles of law." – Mr. Justice Joseph Quinn as quoted in the Globe and Mail.
Until that day, the fighting parents who appeared before Mr. Justice Quinn have been barred from court unless they obtain special leave. Looking at the context, it’s hard to argue they did not earn it: 25 court orders from 12 different judges over 7 years, three contempt motions, one suspended sentence, 12 different lawyers, 2000 pages of court filings.
An apparent lack of respect for the rulings of the Court by both litigants was a factor in this extraordinary Order. As Mr. Justice Quinn is quoted, "[b]oth sides have shown an inability to abide by court orders such that their access to this court should be restricted by the requirement to obtain leave."
Mr. Justice Quinn is further quoted as saying "[t]he parties have gorged on court resources as if the legal system were their private banquet table. It must not happen again,". It is easy to forget that courts are very expensive operations: rent, upkeep and salaries. An hour before a judge in court is not cheap for society, whether or not the litigants are represented by lawyers. As a purely editorial comment, it is heartening to see principled recognition of this fact.
The father, perhaps unsurprisingly given the reported facts, is apparently considering an appeal.
Enjoy the weekend,
In Re Cogan, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice addressed the issue of contingency legal fees. The lawsuit involved the claim of a minor suffering from cerebral palsy, with the plaintiffs alleging that the obstetrician and nurses attending at the child’s birth were negligent.
The case settled for the sum of $12,543,750. The lawyers for the plaintiffs wanted to be paid $4,174,928.45, or roughly 33.33%, on the basis of a contingency fee agreement between them and the minor’s litigation guardian. A contingency fee agreement is an arrangement whereby a lawyer agrees to be paid a percentage of recovery in the lawsuit. Where there is no recovery, the lawyer works for free. Where there is a substantial recovery, the lawyer benefits accordingly.
The Court was asked to rule on whether the contingency fee agreement should be allowed. In its lengthy weighing of both sides, the Court found, among other things, that: The agreement was obtained in a fair way; 2. The agreement was reasonable; 3. The risk to the lawyer of not getting paid and not getting reimbursed for disbursements was high; 4. The case was complex and required significant time commitment and delayed payment; and 5. The result achieved by the lawyer was exceptional.
The Court also commented on the importance of access to justice for vulnerable plaintiffs like the minor and the role contingency agreements can play in fostering that goal.
Therefore, the Court upheld the agreement.
Thanks for reading.
listen to The Ontario Civil Justice Reform Project
This week on Hull on Estates, Chris and Justin discuss the Ontario Civil Justice Reform Project and the steps being taken by Mr. Justice Colter Osbourne and Attorney General Michael Bryant.