Tag: video conference
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario government enacted O. Reg. 129/20 (the “Regulation”), which allows for the remote execution of wills and powers of attorney using video conferencing and counterpart. The Regulation was effective as of April 22, 2020 and was recently extended until September 22, 2020.
In light of the above, we can presume that many of the wills executed over the past five months were done using video conferencing. According to the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, the Regulation may be extended by further orders up to July 24, 2021. Thus, it is possible that the remote execution of wills may continue in the weeks to come.
As with all client meetings, the execution of a will using video conferencing should be well-documented. In most cases, the attendees of a video conference have the option to record both the audio and visual of the meeting. Thus, those who seek a more comprehensive account of the virtual meeting might consider recording the video conference. For information on the benefits and risks of recording client meetings using virtual communication technologies, such as a will signing by video conference, you can visit the Law Society’s COVID-19 Practice Management FAQs.
In the event of a challenge to the will, any video recording of the will signing that may exist will likely be producible documentation. This recording has the potential to be a crucial piece of evidence in the dispute. First, the recording can be used to show that the requirements for due execution of the will have been complied with. To the extent that the testator commented on the dispositions made in their will during the will signing meeting, the video recording may also assist in confirming the testator’s wishes and providing a rationale for their testamentary choices. A video recording could also help demonstrate that the testator was of sound mind at the time they signed their will.
However, it is also important to note that any video recording of the will signing will probably be heavily scrutinized by the person challenging the will. Any behaviour displayed by the testator that could be perceived as hesitation, uncertainty, forgetfulness, or misunderstanding could potentially be used to undermine the validity of the will. As such, depending on the idiosyncrasies of the testator, and how they react to being on camera, retaining a video record of the execution of the will might not be especially helpful in warding off challenges to the will.
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While remote communication has become the norm for many, there continues to be resistance to using technology in the legal sphere. A recent decision by Justice Myers of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice suggests that, in 2020, the court will not easily acquiesce to such resistance.
In Arconti v. Smith, the plaintiffs sued their former lawyer and his partner for negligence, breaches of duty, and other causes of action in connection with the lawyer’s representation of the plaintiffs in a securities fraud case. In January 2020, Justice Myers ruled that a focused mini-trial was required to determine if summary judgment ought to be granted with respect to one of the issues. In a later case conference, he agreed with the plaintiffs that they should be entitled to further examination for discovery of the defendants prior to the mini-trial. An examination of one of the defendants was then scheduled for May 6, 2020.
However, at a case conference held on May 1, 2020, counsel for the plaintiffs advised that his clients did not want the examination of the defendant to proceed by video conference. He argued that because in-person examination is not possible due to the implementation of social distancing in response to the pandemic, the proceedings should be delayed until the requirement for social distancing is ended. The plaintiffs objected to a videoconference examination on the bases that:
- they need to be with their counsel to assist with documents and facts during the examination;
- it is more difficult to assess a witness’s demeanour remotely;
- the lack of physical presence in a neutral setting deprives the occasion of solemnity and a morally persuasive environment; and
- the plaintiffs do not trust the defendants not to engage in sleight of hand to abuse the process.
In his case conference endorsement, 2020 ONSC 2782 (the “Decision”), Justice Myers dealt with the issue of whether the plaintiffs ought to be required to conduct an examination out-of-court by video conference rather than in person. He ultimately held that if the plaintiffs wish to take advantage of the opportunity to examine the defendant out-of-court, before the upcoming mini-trial, they must do so remotely by video conference. The general sentiment of Justice Myer’s reasons is captured in paragraph 19 of the Decision:
“In my view, the simplest answer to this issue is, “It’s 2020”. We no longer record evidence using quill and ink. In fact, we apparently do not even teach children to use cursive writing in all schools anymore. We now have the technological ability to communicate remotely effectively. Using it is more efficient and far less costly than personal attendance. We should not be going back.”
Justice Myers further explained that the use of readily available technology is a necessary component of a civil litigator’s basic skillset. Like other tools at a lawyer’s disposal, technology does not produce perfection and parties ought to remain vigilant to the risks and shortcomings associated with remote processes. However, one’s own unfamiliarity with the technology is not a good basis to decline to use available technology, particularly where remote processes can help move a proceeding forward more efficiently and affordably.
As the Decision suggests, justice will not be served by sitting and waiting for the pandemic to pass. We must learn to accept our circumstances and adapt to the new normal. As Max McKeown wrote, “adaptability is about the powerful difference between adapting to cope and adapting to win.” It is becoming increasingly evident that in today’s legal system, adopting technological processes is adapting to win.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the legal profession to alter the ways in which we practice. The need to keep litigation moving forward has brought to the forefront alternative processes and the importance of technology. Files are continuing to move forward during the pandemic via virtual proceedings, such as virtual courtrooms and virtual mediations. While some are embracing these platforms, others are more wary. In Arctoni v. Smith, 2020 ONSC 2782, Justice Myers considered whether an examination for discovery should proceed by videoconference, or if the plaintiffs were allowed to wait until the physical distancing restrictions are lifted and conduct the examination in-person.
The plaintiffs objected to a videoconference examination because they maintained that:
- They needed to be with their counsel to assist with documents and facts during the examination;
- It is more difficult to assess a witness’s demeanour remotely;
- The lack of physical presence in a neutral setting deprives the occasion of solemnity and a morally persuasive environment; and
- They did not trust the defendants not to engage in sleight of hand to abuse the process.
Justice Myers noted that the simplest answer to this issue is that “It’s 2020”. He went on to say that “we now have the technological ability to communicate remotely effectively. Using these technological methods is more efficient and less costly than personal attendance and we should not be going back.”
While the court endorsed the use of technology, it acknowledged that legitimate concerns exist. One of which is that technology can be abused. It was noted, however, that the possibility of abuse may still exist even if parties are in the same room. While it is important to remain vigilant against the risk of fraud and abuse, a vague risk of abuse is not a good basis to decline the use of technology.
Furthermore, the suggestion that the use of videoconferencing creates “due process” concerns was rejected as the court noted that all parties have the same opportunity to participate and to be heard. All parties also have the same ability to put all of the relevant evidence before the court and to challenge the evidence adduced by the other side.
With regards to the plaintiffs concern that they needed to be with counsel to assist with the documents and facts, Justice Myers stated that there are other ways in which counsel can convey information to their colleagues during an examination. For instance, Zoom offers “breakout rooms” in which counsel can privately meet with their colleagues and clients.
Case law depicts that there are many fears associated with assessing the credibility of a witness via video technology but these fears, by those who have never actually used the technology stated Justice Myers, may not be as significant as they seem. While solemnity and personal chemistry may be lost in remote proceedings, it is not yet known whether, over time, solutions to these shortcomings will be developed as familiarity with these processes grows.
Justice Myers emphasized that, in 2020, the use of readily available technology is “part of the basic skillset required of civil litigators and courts.” He went on to say that those who are uncomfortable with technology should obtain necessary training and education.
The court concluded that proceeding remotely does have its shortcomings; however, in this case, the benefits of doing so outweighed the risks. The plaintiffs main concerns could be resolved by creative alternatives or by increased familiarity with technology. By proceeding remotely, the litigation, which had been going on for years, would not have to be delayed. Consequently, Justice Myers ordered that, unless the plaintiffs chose to waive their opportunity to conduct the examination for discovery, the examination should proceed by videoconference.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
As the province of Ontario slowly emerges from the strict measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, businesses and organizations alike are considering what workplaces will look like moving forward. Modernizing technology in workplaces is a fundamental aspect of these considerations, and Ontario courtrooms are no exception.
On Thursday, May 28, 2020, Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, Senior Family Justice Suzanne Stevenson and Regional Senior Justice Michelle Fuerst answered questions posed by members of the legal profession on the Superior Court’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the future of the courtroom as we know it. The overarching message conveyed by Chief Justice Morawetz was that the courts have acknowledged the need to modernize and that great efforts are being made to adapt to new technologies and integrate those technologies into our justice system.
I will briefly highlight some of the key takeaways from the Ontario Bar Association’s (OBA) webinar, although I encourage all those who are interested to watch the full webinar, which is free and accessible to the public on the OBA website. To watch the webinar, click here.
- Currently, the Superior Court of Justice has suspended in-person hearings until July 6, 2020, at the earliest. It is expected that the next phase of modernization will see a hybrid of both in-person and video or telephone conferencing. Courts will likely not return to “normal” operations (i.e. in-person hearings of all matters) until a vaccine is widely available.
- It was acknowledged that the courts moved quickly to allow for remote hearings of matters that were easily suited to a virtual hearing, such as matters that were unopposed, on consent, or in writing. Over the course of the pandemic, the courts have twice expanded the scope of matters it will hear. Moving forward, it is expected that the courts will continue to expand the virtual courtroom to be able to hear contentious matters that require oral advocacy.
- In conjunction with the Minister of the Attorney General’s office, the courts are aiming to increase availability to video conferencing across all regions.
- Given that the courts have not been operating at their full capacity since mid-March, and the backlog that existed prior to Covid-19, it is expected that there will be a significant backlog of matters that will have to be heard. In an effort to resolve this issue, judges from different regions will likely hear matters virtually in order to bring the court system back up to speed.
- We can expect to see an expansion of matters that that are being overseen by a case management judge.
- It is expected that eventually, there will be electronic scheduling platforms in place that will allow counsel to schedule attendances online.
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Video conferencing has been around for about forty years. It has been used in criminal court bail hearings and on applications to the Supreme Court of Canada for more than thirty years in some parts of the country. There are many good reasons to now expand the use of video and other technology in the law of wills and estates. The technology “Genie” is now out of the legislative bottle it has been kept in for too long, and it is not likely to be put back in when this pandemic fully ends.
The changes made in the last month to how a will can be validly signed in Ontario have been made far more quickly than anyone expected. The substance of these changes has been dealt with in other Hull and Hull blogs. The Emergency Management and Civil Protection legislation in Ontario, and the Orders made pursuant to that legislation beginning on Tuesday March 17, 2020 have effectively amended past practice to such a degree that the usual caution of the legal profession has been surrendered. Wills can now be signed and witnessed over the internet. Counterpart signed wills are now allowed. Affidavits can be commissioned by video conference now. These and other changes have been made and implemented quickly, with effect to the core of basic principles. The legal profession in Ontario has not seen changes like this in the past one hundred years!
The changes are brought on by the circumstances of the current pandemic emergency and are necessary. It has been impressive to watch these changes being made so quickly. Immense credit is due to those involved. Led by the Attorney General of Ontario, Doug Downey, and with the Deputy Minister, lawyers at the Ministry, members of the Estate Bar, and others, they have all truly done monumental work. On Monday May 4, 2020 a notice was posted on the Ontario Court of Justice website that included the following statement that the Court would be, “…working closely with its justice partners, including the Ministry of the Attorney General, to adopt technology that will increase participants’ ability to access the Court’s services using remote means, such as by the electronic filing of court material, remote scheduling processes, and remote hearings.”
It is interesting to ask however, while changes were happening incrementally in other areas of the law over many years, why was there no progress in the area of execution of wills? It is important to also ask what further changes should be made at this time. For many lawyers the recent storm of events and the subsequent changes are anxiety making. Nevertheless, this is the time further permanent changes should be considered. What should be of interest now is how technology can be used to benefit all going forward. Before the timing of the window for change closes this should become an important discussion among estate lawyers.
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These blog posts on the subject may also be of interest:
Representatives of the Courts of Ontario, the Ministry of the Attorney General and various stakeholder representatives are meeting regularly in order to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and the courts’ response to it.
At present, the Ministry and the courts are working towards a further expansion of the courts. To date, since the declaration of the emergency, the Superior Court of Justice has heard about 1,000 matters, being motions, conferences and pre-trials. However, it is hoped that the types of matters to be heard and the number of matters can be expanded in the near future.
Committees are currently considering the expansion of court services. Priorities being discussed include:
- Identifying a Document Sharing Platform to be used by judges, counsel and parties;
- Identifying a Video Conferencing Platform to be used by judges, counsel and parties; and
- Determining a protocol to be used by court staff for supporting virtual hearings.
It is expected that the selection of a Document Sharing Platform will be made by next week, with the other items to be in place shortly thereafter. While there is no set time frame, once the systems are put in place, there will be an announcement with respect to the expansion of court services.
It would appear that once these systems are put in place, there will be no turning back. Virtual hearings, at least to a certain extent, will be the new norm. Previous attempts to modernize the court by allowing virtual attendances, through a service called CourtCall, did not gain much traction. However, I suspect that there is now a greater appetite for and comfort with virtual hearings. Further, it is likely that the hearings will be supported by better document management and document filing facilities; something that was lacking under past experiments.
And stay safe.
Working from home in recent weeks has meant that virtual meetings are becoming the norm for many, both socially and professionally. With that comes a view of us in our homes that others did not previously have. While it is acceptable to dress casually while sitting on the sofa with a drink in hand during a social on-camera get together, a business meeting often means adhering to a more formal dress code and sitting in a more neutral location in your home. Elevate that meeting to a virtual court attendance, and the requirement to preserve decorum is all the more essential.
Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone appreciates the importance of these common-sense expectations. This led to a Broward County judge reprimanding attorneys for attire infractions, reported here, which included appearing shirtless and appearing in bed under the covers!
Although I had a good chuckle over this, it does remind us of the importance of maintaining appearances in a professional setting, which can also positively impact our performance. So the next time you are tempted to attend a work meeting or court hearing in your bedroom with a casual shirt on, consider wearing a blazer and sitting in your home office instead. But please stay seated, and we won’t tell anyone about the sweat pants!
Have a great day,
Does a testator have to sign his or her own Will to be valid? A little used provision of the Succession Law Reform Act permits a Will to be signed by some other person (an “amanuensis”) in testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction.
Our managing partner, Suzana Popovic-Montag, wrote several on this very topic.
With the logistical issues associated with execution of wills by video-conference, it may be that this manner of execution may become more widely used.
If this is to be done using presence by video conference, we have come up with some suggestions in our Hull e-State Planner Blog. (click here)
Note that the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 does not specifically permit execution by an amanuensis for Powers of Attorney.
We continue in unchartered waters and we welcome any suggestions or comments.
Our firm attended the OBA Professional Development Dinner With Your Honourable Estates List Judges on April 5, 2017. The topic of the new practice advisory on video conferencing, and its intended use, was one of the topics that were discussed that evening.
This particular practice advisory is applicable only to 9:30 scheduling appointments on the Toronto Estates List and it was made in accordance with Rule 1.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The new practice advisory is clear that, unless otherwise directed by the court, video conferencing is available in consent matters, unopposed matters, and scheduling matters. Parties or counsel who chose to appear by video conference must make their own arrangements and they may use CourtCall without prior Court approval. An appearance by CourtCall should be communicated to the Court in either the request or confirmation form filed for the appearance. As a matter of convenience, the Order, once issue and entered, will be sent to you by CourtCall.
For those who are interested, further details with respect to what CourtCall is and how it works are available on their website, https://courtcall.com.
Any other arrangements with alternative technologies for this purpose will require prior Court approval.
According to the Honourable Estates List Judges who were present during the Dinner, regardless of whether a matter is on consent or unopposed, video conference may still be less than ideal in situations where substantive relief is sought, such as an unopposed guardianship application.
For future OBA Trusts and Estates Law events like the Dinner, please check out the section group here.
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