Tag: cross examinations
As my colleague, Nick Esterbauer, blogged about last week (here and here), the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed all of us, including the courts and the legal profession, towards the increasing use of technology. This has included the use of video-conferencing for examinations of witnesses in the litigation context. As we adapt to this new world, there are inevitably going to be ‘hiccups’. It is crucial to maintain the integrity of the process and to ensure that virtual examinations are not abused.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dealt with just such a situation. In Kaushal v Vasudeva et al., 2021 ONSC 440, the cross-examination of the respondent to an application was held over Zoom. The respondent required an interpreter for his cross-examination, and the respondent, his lawyer, and the interpreter all attended at the lawyer’s boardroom for the examination. They were all in the same room together, but on separate devices. The respondent’s wife and son came to the lawyer’s office with him, but according to the respondent they remained in the reception area at all times. It was confirmed on the record by the respondent’s lawyer that the only people present with the respondent during the examination were the lawyer and the interpreter.
Following the examination, the applicant noticed that a microphone and camera in the respondent’s lawyer’s boardroom had been left on, and he could hear the respondent’s wife and son speaking. It appeared to the applicant that the wife and son had listened in on the examination.
The respondent denied that his wife and son were present in the boardroom during his cross-examination. His lawyer’s legal assistant also provided affidavit evidence that the wife and son were not in the boardroom during the examinations.
The interpreter, however, ultimately swore two affidavits that the wife and son were present in the boardroom throughout the respondent’s examination, and were prompting the respondent’s answers by hand and facial gestures. The court accepted the interpreter’s evidence in its entirety.
The court concluded that there was misconduct during the respondent’s cross-examination on the basis that his wife and son were present and made hand and facial gestures to assist him with his answers. The court further concluded that the respondent’s misconduct amounted to abuse of process and that his affidavit responding to the application must be struck. It was the court’s view that it “must send a strong message that interference in the fact-finding process by abusing or taking advantage of a virtual examination will not be tolerated. In a broader sense, this type of misconduct strikes at the very heard of the integrity of the fact-finding process such that general deterrence is also a factor.”
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A party has a prima facie right to test the evidence given by a witness through cross-examination. This is a critical means to building a body of evidence to support one’s case. However, if a party does not make adequate efforts to avail themselves of the opportunity to cross-examine, they may lose this benefit. The Honourable Madam Justice Sylvia Corthorn of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice addresses this issue in her recent decision in Clayton v. Clayton et al., 2020 ONSC 7592.
Clayton involves an application to remove the trustees of two trusts that form part of an estate. The applicant in this case brought a motion for an order striking the affidavit sworn by one of the respondents and trustees, Shirley. Pursuant to a notice of cross-examination, Shirley was to be cross-examined on her affidavit on November 22, 2019. However, prior to the commencement of cross-examinations, Shirley’s counsel advised that she would not be produced for cross-examination due to concerns about her mental capacity. Counsel agreed that an assessment of Shirley’s capacity to be cross-examined was necessary and consequently, she was not cross-examined. The applicant did not obtain a certificate of non-attendance with respect to Shirley’s cross-examination and no notice to cross-examine Shirley on a subsequent date was served.
The geriatric assessment of Shirley was scheduled for May 2020 and then postponed to the fall of 2020 due to COVID-19. There was no evidence before the court as to whether this assessment was ever done. The hearing of the application was likewise delayed as a result of the pandemic. The application is currently scheduled to be heard in January 2021.
At no point after November 2019 did the applicant pursue cross-examination of Shirley. When the application returned to court in September 2020, the applicant took the position that Shirley’s affidavit cannot be used on the application in light of her supposed incapacity and the respondents’ alleged refusal to permit cross-examination. The applicant then brought a motion requesting that the affidavit be struck in its entirety on the grounds that the admission of this evidence would be prejudicial to the fairness of the hearing and constitute an abuse of process.
Justice Corthorn dismissed the applicant’s motion. She found that he did not take any steps, prior to bringing this motion, to seek the assistance of the court in determining the steps required to address concerns with respect to Shirley’s affidavit and whether she could be cross-examined. She also considered that the application had already been adjourned three times and that the applicant had not requested a further adjournment to permit cross-examination of Shirley. Justice Corthorn affirmed that the court has discretion to prevent or limit cross-examination where it is in the interests of justice to do so. She decided that in this case, it is fair to both the process and the parties to admit Shirley’s affidavit and leave the issue of the weight to be given to her evidence to be determined with the benefit of the complete record. The parties would also have the opportunity to make submissions with respect to the weight to be given to Shirley’s evidence, and this will permit the court to control the process and avoid an abuse of it.
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The Rules of Civil Procedure are quite clear as to when a lawyer may answer questions on behalf of their client during an examination for discovery. The Rules though, appear to be less clear with respect to cross-examinations on affidavits, and as such, attention must be turned to case law.
According to Rule 31.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, questions on an oral examination for discovery, “…shall be answered by the person being examined but, where there is no objection, the questions may be answered by his or her lawyer”. Simply put, if the examining party objects to an answer being given by the deponent’s lawyer, the examined party must answer the question and not their lawyer.
The rationale for this can be found in the Divisional Court decision of The Polish Alliance of Canada v. Polish Association of Toronto, where Justice Lauwers (quoting the Law of Civil Procedure in Ontario) states that: “…counsel for the party being examined should not interfere with the examination; the examiner is entitled to the evidence of the witnesses and not to that of counsel”.
Justice Lauwers provides further rationale (quoting Witnesses): “The primary reason for prohibiting communication between counsel and witness while testifying at trial is to prevent counsel from telling the witness what he or she should say. The same concern exists during a discovery, and consequently, the same basic restriction against counsel/witness communication should be in place”.
Therefore, whether it be an examination for discovery or a cross-examination on an affidavit, a lawyer may answer questions on behalf of the deponent, only if the examining party does not object. There is no distinction between the two forms of examinations.