Tag: conflict of interest
It is not uncommon for the lawyer who drafted a testator’s will or codicil to subsequently be retained by the Estate Trustees after the testator’s death to assist with the administration of the estate. The rationale behind the drafting lawyer being retained to assist with the administration of the estate appears fairly self-evident, for as the drafting lawyer likely has an intimate knowledge of the testator’s estate plan and assets they may be in a better position than most to assist with the administration of the estate.
While retaining the drafting lawyer to assist with the administration of the estate is fairly uncontroversial in most situations, circumstances could become more complicated if there has been a challenge to the validity of the testamentary document prepared by the drafting lawyer. If a proceeding has been commenced challenging the validity of the testamentary document, there is an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer’s notes and records will be produced as evidence, and that the drafting lawyer will be called as a non-party witness as part of the discovery process. If the matter should proceed all the way to trial, there is also an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer would be called as a witness at trial. As the drafting lawyer would personally have a role to play in any court process challenging the validity of the will, questions emerge regarding whether it would be proper for the drafting lawyer to continue to represent any party in the will challenge, or would doing so place the drafting lawyer in a conflict of interest?
Rule 3.4-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not act or continue to act where there is a conflict of interest. In the case of a drafting lawyer representing a party in a will challenge for a will that they prepared, an argument could be raised that the drafting lawyer is in an inherent position of conflict, as the drafting lawyer may be unable to look out for the best interests of their client while at the same time looking out for their own interests when being called as a witness or producing their file. There is also the potentially awkward situation of the drafting lawyer having to call themselves as a witness, and the associated logistical quagmire of how the lawyer would put questions to themselves.
The issue of whether a drafting lawyer would be in a conflict of interest in representing a party in a will challenge was dealt with in Dale v. Prentice, 2015 ONSC 1611. In such a decision, the party challenging the validity of the will brought a motion to remove the drafting lawyer as the lawyer of record for the propounder of the will, alleging they were in a conflict of interest. The court ultimately agreed that the drafting lawyer was in a conflict of interest, and ordered that the drafting lawyer be removed as the lawyer of record. In coming to such a conclusion, the court states:
“There is a significant likelihood of a real conflict arising. Counsel for the estate is propounding a Will prepared by his office. The preparation and execution of Wills are legal services, reserved to those who are properly licensed to practise law. Counsel’s ability to objectively and independently assess the evidence will necessarily be affected by his interest in having his firm’s legal services found to have been properly provided.” [emphasis added]
Decisions such as Dale v. Prentice suggest that a lawyer may be unable to represent any party in a will challenge for a will that was prepared by their office as they may be in a conflict of interest. Should the circumstance arise where the drafting lawyer is retained to assist with the administration of the estate, and subsequent to being retained someone challenges the validity of the Will, it may be in the best interest of all parties for the drafting lawyer to indicate that they are no longer able to act in the matter due to the potential conflict, and suggest to their clients that they retain a new lawyer to represent them in the will challenge.
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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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The media cannot get enough of President Donald Trump. Regardless of whether you turn on the television, or pick up a newspaper, there seem to be endless articles about the policies and the decisions he has made. As this is an estates blog, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the recent commentary regarding the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust (the “Trust”).
Before his election, the then President-elect Donald Trump was questioned as to whether he intended to place his assets in a blind trust.
What is a blind trust? In order to answer this, I refer to a prior Hull & Hull blog which states that, “a blind trust can be thought of as an individual relinquishing control over their assets, and providing them to a trustee to manage them on their behalf. The trustee has complete discretion over how to invest the individual’s assets, with the beneficiary being provided with no information regarding how the investments are being held, and the beneficiary having no say in how the funds are managed. As the beneficiary has no idea what their funds are invested in, the theory is that they would not be inclined to enact government policy which would favour their own investments, and that they would be able to avoid a conflict of interest”.
Documents recently made available to the public provide insight into the terms of the Trust. For instance, the assets of the Trust include liquid assets (from the sale of investments), as well as his physical and intellectual properties. The Trustees of the Trust are the President’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organisation’s chief financial officer. Apparently, the President has the ability to revoke the trustees’ authority (I presume by saying, ‘you’re fired’) at any time. Moreover, according to the New York Times, the President will continue to receive reports on any profits/losses.
Of course, there are two views as to whether these Trust terms constitute a blind trust. While some pundits suggest that the Trust satisfactorily distances the President from his assets, others suggest that the President has not gone far enough to absolve himself of potential conflicts of interest and is therefore not a blind trust.
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