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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Natalia Angelini recently blogged about some helpful tips from LawPRO on how to minimize the risk when virtually witnessing Wills and powers of attorney. On April 24, LawPRO posted another helpful article about the risks of “renting out” your signature as a virtual witness.
The emergency legislation requires that one of the witnesses to a Will that is executed by means of audio-visual communication technology (which now temporarily meets the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 requirement that the testator and witnesses be “in the presence of” each other), be a Law Society licensee. This means that some of us may be asked to be witnesses to a Will or power of attorney that we did not prepare ourselves. However, as LawPRO points out, simply being a witness does not necessarily mean that we will not be held responsible if there are problems with the Will or power of attorney.
Some of the issues that may arise could include the following:
- Problems with the Will or power of attorney not being executed properly, in accordance with the requirements for due execution and the specific requirements of virtual execution pursuant to the temporary legislation.
- The Will or power of attorney not reflecting the testator or grantor’s wishes. This may arise if a testator or grantor prepares their own Will or power of attorney from an online service or kit, resulting in a document that is likely not tailored to the testator or grantor’s particular situation, financial circumstances, and wishes.
- Technical errors in the document, such as the omission of a residue clause, which can drastically impact the distribution of the testator’s assets.
LawPRO has provided some tips for how to protect yourself if you are asked to be a witness to a Will or power of attorney that you did not prepare (although the tips seem equally applicable if you did prepare the document in question):
- Take detailed notes.
- Send a reporting letter following the execution of the document and confirm the scope of your retainer.
- Record the signing (with the client’s permission).
You may also consider having the testator or grantor sign a limited retainer agreement, before you witness the Will or power of attorney, which explicitly sets out that you have been engaged only for the purpose of witnessing the document, and not to review it or provide any legal advice.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
These other blog posts may also be of interest:
I recently read an interesting article by Helene Love titled “Seniors on the Stand: Accommodating Older Witnesses in Adversarial Trials”, that explored the intersection of age and its effects on witness testimony in trials. Helene’s article considers whether the legal and procedural rules that have been developed to ensure that only the most reliable evidence is used in a trial may disproportionately be excluding evidence from seniors. The paper assessed the risks associated with aging, as well as the practical and legal issues related to aging witnesses, and offered suggestions to accommodate senior witnesses within our current legal framework. I will summarize some of the key considerations below.
The objective of a trial is to discover the truth. Examinations of witnesses under oath allow the trier of fact to test the reliability of witnesses, making examinations during trial a fundamental aspect of the modern day trial. Interestingly, the basis for requiring live testimony of witnesses dates back to the 16th and 17th century trials by jury, whereby jurors were not prevented from relying on untrustworthy sources of information, and abuses of power were common. In order to enhance the reliability of trials and control the quality of evidence, judges created the requirement for witnesses to provide evidence in person. The reliability of a witness is typically assessed by a judge based on a witness’s ability to observe, recall, and then recount and event in the courtroom.
Reports indicate that within the next 20 years, the number of Canadians aged 65 years or older will double, meaning that there will be more senior citizens involved in the justice system. Given the significant increase in older persons acting as witnesses, there are a number of ways that aging can impact a witness’s ability to provide evidence during a trial.
Some of the risks associated with aging include:
- Attrition – depending on the complexity of a case, it can take months or even years to finally reach a trial date, meaning that there are increased chances that an older witness, particularly those over 80 years old, have an increased chance of dying before having a chance to take the witness stand.
- Changes to the Sensory Organs and the Brain with Age – biological changes to sensory organs and the brain can result in a decrease in perceptual acuity and gaps in memory.
- Mobility Issues – Health Canada reports that by age 75, 29% of men and 38% of women report at least one physical limitation, making it more difficult to attend court in person, particularly if that appearance is extended over a period of time.
- Strokes and Dementia – Individuals aged over 65 are ten times more likely to have a stroke, and individuals who have had a stroke are more than twice as likely to develop dementia. Dementia can involve a range of symptoms, including physical limitations such as limb stiffness to the most commonly known type of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease. Individuals with cognitive impairments would not be competent to testify in a trial.
This begs the question, how can the legal system accommodate senior witnesses while maintaining accuracy and reliability as top priorities in the pursuit of the truth? I will address some of the main solutions proposed in the civil context (although there were a number of great alternatives proposed in the criminal context that I encourage you to read).
- Expedited trial scheduling or proceeding by way of summary trial. Although not discussed in this article, another possibility in Ontario may be to request a case management judge who can determine whether the case should be heard in an expedited manner.
- Obtain witness evidence at an earlier point in time through discoveries, pre-trial examinations, or affidavit evidence to be relied on at a later date.
- Use the principled approach to hearsay. The rule against hearsay states that earlier statements made by others outside of court are presumptively inadmissible because they were not made under oath, in the presence of the trier of fact and/or tested by cross examination. However, hearsay statements can be admitted for their truth if they are sufficiently necessary and reliable, as outlined in the leading Supreme Court of Canada case of R v Khelawon, 2006 SCC 57
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 In the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, 14 women and 6 men were executed on charges of witchcraft based entirely on supernatural visions that indicated the presence of witchcraft, the reliability of which went untested during the trial.
In today’s podcast, Noah Weisberg and Sayuri Kagami discuss the problems caused by a beneficiary under a Will witnessing its execution in the context of the recent Saskatchewan decision of Mahin v Kolosnjaji, 2019 SKQB 32.
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