How “Uncivil” Can a Lawyer be in Court? The Groia Case

GEO_edited-1If you are a litigator in Canada you should know the name “Joe Groia”. He is a masterful legal advocate from Ontario who specializes in securities law. His prominence in the legal profession was capped this week when Groia v. The Law Society of Upper Canada (now the Law Society of Ontario) was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada. (Law Society of Upper Canada v. Joseph Peter Paul Groia, 2012 ONLSHP 94)

Why is Mr. Groia suing Ontario’s Law Society and why would the Supreme Court of Canada agree to hear his case? In June 2012 the Law Society held that Mr. Groia had professionally misconducted himself while defending his client John Felderhof in an action taken against him by the Ontario Securities Commission. You may recall that Mr. Felderhof was second in command at Bre-X Minerals Ltd, the Canadian-owned gold mine in Borneo that turned out to be a fraud, leaving thousands of investors with losses of hundreds of millions of dollars after investing in the bogus company.

Groia’s representation of Mr. Felderhof was second-to-none, as Mr. Felderhof, after 160 days of trial, was acquitted of all charges. However, the Law Society took it upon themselves to call Mr. Groia to account for his allegedly “uncivil” behaviour during the proceedings, conduct so egregious that during the trial, lawyers for the Ontario Securities Commission asked the judge to stop the trial arguing that he had lost jurisdiction by failing to rein in Mr. Groia’s outrageously rude behaviour in the courtroom. That application failed and the trial continued.

Two Ontario courts reviewed and upheld the Law Society’s ruling against Mr. Groia, describing his trial conduct as “unrestrained invective”, excessive rhetoric”, “theatrically excessive”, “sarcastic and petulant”, “more guerrilla theatre than advocacy in court”, and “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity”.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy and significant to Mr. Groia’s defence that the trial judge did not hold him in contempt, neither did he report Mr. Groia’s trial behaviour to the Law Society.

Groia, in rebuttal offered the following arguments:

1. He cast no personal aspersions against opposing counsel, but only targeted the Securities Commission and the prosecution;

2. His basis for alleging prosecutorial misconduct was based on his reasonably held views;

3. His language was mischaracterized by the Law Society and the courts;

4. The tone of the trial was an important factor in assessing his conduct, particularly in light of the prosecutor’s behaviour;

5. The Law Society retroactively applied standards of the “civility movement” to his conduct; and

6. His obligation as an effective advocate outstripped any absence of civility.

Without reading the whole of the transcripts of the trial, it is difficult to assess whether Mr. Groia’s behaviour fell so far below the standard of professionalism of a barrister that he ought to have been sanctioned by the Law Society. His original punishment was a two-month suspension of his license to practice law and an order that he pay costs of $250,000. This penalty was later reduced by the courts to a one-month suspension and $200,000 in costs.

Mr. Groia would, of course, argue that even reading the transcripts one would not be in a position to assess the conduct and roles of each of the counsel and judge at the trial and that may very well be true. It’s the old story that “you had to be there” to understand the dynamics.

Media reports from the hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada this week, appear to underscore the high court’s focus on the absence of disapproval from the trial judge, who was best placed to determine whether Mr. Groia’s conduct sunk to a level where he deserved to be chastised or disciplined.

As a trial lawyer in hard-fought cases, I tend to agree that it is not the Law Society’s place to interfere as a back-seat referee in a hotly contested proceeding where an unsuccessful defence will lead to dire consequences for the accused.

The Supreme Court of Canada clearly wants to provide guidance to litigators. We must now wait to see what the Supremes think…

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Trial Debacle Leads to Freedom for Pedophile From Nova Scotia

BarristerDespite what you hear or read, you can’t blame Ernest MacIntosh for the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to quash his convictions for sex charges involving young boys in the 1970’s. (R. v. MacIntosh 2013 SCC 23)

A successful Cape Breton businessman, MacIntosh was transferred by his employer to Singapore and then to India in 1994 where he remained until his extradition back to Canada in 2007 to face numerous counts of indecent assault and gross indecency charges stemming from allegations made by six young men in 1995.

When MacIntosh left Canada in 1994 there were no charges against him and he had no idea that charges may be laid. Over the years he travelled between India and Canada, renewing his Canadian passport from time to time as required by Canadian law.

He was not hiding from the law. Canadian authorities knew where he lived in New Delhi and had his phone number. Coincidentally, one of his neighbours was an RCMP officer who worked as a liaison in India.

MacIntosh finally became aware of two criminal charges in 1997 but was led to believe by Canada Passport authorities that the charges were not proceeding. He heard nothing more until nine years later, despite the fact that in 2001 fifteen more charges were brought against him and he renewed his passport in 2002. The Crown acknowledged their decision to extradite Mr. MacIntosh in 1997 but as you will read, did nothing about it for nine years.

In 2006 the Crown filed extradition proceedings in India, some 11 years after the first charges were laid and five years after the second group of charges were filed against him.

Mr. MacIntosh was brought back to Canada in June 2007 but did not receive complete mandatory disclosure from the Crown until eleven months later, an astonishing delay considering that the Crown had readied their cases years before.

He finally went to trial in July 2010 and was convicted on several of the charges. However, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned the convictions based on the 14 year delay of the Crown in proceeding against MacIntosh. But that wasn’t the only problem with the convictions.

The trial judge had so badly confused the evidence, even mixing up the witnesses and attributing evidence to one witness that was derived from another, that the Appeal Court determined that even absent the extraordinary delay, the judge’s errors would be cause for a new trial.

A key issue at the trial were statements made by an alleged victim in 1995 and again in 2000 concerning details of the abuse he suffered, that simply could not be reconciled.

The trial judge acknowledged the discrepancies and based on the victim’s evidence and the testimony of another witness, determined that the assault did not take place at all. Yet despite this finding, the judge did not turn his attention to the issue of the victim’s overall credibility.

The finding that the alleged abuse did not occur as described, or at all, points to a flaw in the Crown’s preparation of their witness. In cases where a witness signs a comprehensive statement which he radically amends five years later, it is incumbent upon the Crown to test the evidence of the witness to ensure its reliability. Under cross-examination, this witness agreed that the event did not occur.

That the Supreme Court of Canada denied the Crown’s appeal in an oral judgment from the bench speaks to the Crown’s flimsy case. After all, an accused is not obliged to turn himself into the police or give a statement. It is the Crown’s job to bring an accused to trial.

Most notably, the Crown was unable to provide any rationale for their delay in prosecuting this case and cries for a public inquiry may well be revived now that our highest court has spoken. However, karma is alive and well because a few short years later Mr. MacIntosh was convicted of sex crimes in Nepal and sentenced to seven years in prison.

I suspect he would rather be serving time in a Canadian prison…

Supreme Court of Canada Refuses to Hear Lawyers Who Argue “Gonzo Logic”

GeorgiaLeeLang025While President Trump’s opponent are having a large-scale melt-down over his recent appointments, perhaps the most consequential of these appointments is his nomination of Justice  Neil Grosuch to replace the late Justice Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

But lest you think that Canada’s judicial appointments lack the intensity and angst of our American friends, you need only refer back to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment of Federal Court of Appeal Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013.

You may also recall that Ontario lawyer, Rocco Galati, challenged Mr. Harper’s appointment by filing a lawsuit against Mr. Harper, the Governor-General, Justice Nadon, the Attorney-General, and the Minister of Justice, which undoubtedly prompted the government’s prompt action to have the Supreme Court of Canada issue a ruling on Justice Nadon’s eligibility for our highest court, this after he had already been appointed.

The argument against his appointment was that Mr. Justice Nadon, as a  Federal Court judge, was not qualified to represent Quebec on the Supreme Court of Canada, despite his long tenure as a lawyer in Quebec.

The eventual outcome confirmed Mr. Galati’s position that Judge Nadon was not eligible, a surprise to the Harper government who had contrary opinions from two retired Supreme Court of Canada justices and several constitutional experts.

Most of this has been long forgotten by Canadians, but Mr. Galati’s 2016 application to the Federal Court of Appeal to be paid $800.00 per hour by Canadian taxpayers for his legal work in bringing this challenge has brought this case back to media scrutiny, particularly in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision this week to refuse to hear the case.

Mr. Galati claimed the sum of $51,706.00 and his co-counsel, Paul Slansky, wished to be paid $16,769.oo, again at a rate of $800.00 per hour.

Both counsel admitted that this is not the hourly rate they normally charge, but this amount reflects their years at the bar and their expertise, a proposition that was soundly rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal in their Reasons.

The Court found that Mr. Galati’s and Mr. Slansky’s request for full indemnity for their legal services, called “special costs” was unwarranted for a variety of sensible reasons. For starters, their litigation did not decide the outcome of the Nadon issue, as shortly after they filed their action, the Supreme Court of Canada stepped in, thus ousting their private action. They were not successful litigants.

As well, “special costs”are only awarded when the opposing litigant’s behaviour has been egregious, even outrageous. Short of that, a costs tariff comes into play, a tariff that is far from reimbursement for all legal costs. Additionally, Mr. Galati and his colleague were representing themselves and were actually in-person litigants, not entitled to costs.

The Federal Court also remarked that experienced counsel would know that if costs were to be awarded, the tariff rules would govern. But the court’s ire was raised in response to Mr. Galati’s argument that the constitution supported his request for special costs and that to deny his claim was to be evidence that the Federal Court was “in bed” with the federal government.  To this audacious statement the court replied:

“It is therefore unnecessary for me to deal with the argument as to constitutional entitlement as it does not arise on these facts. That said, it sometimes occurs that a party makes an argument that is so scandalous that it deserves to be condemned, whether it arises on the facts of the case or not. This is such a case.”

The Court found that Mr. Galati’s  allegation of collusion between the court and the government was “reminiscent of the Gonzo logic of the Vietnam War era, where entire villages were destroyed to save them from the enemy…this argument deserves to be condemned without reservation.”

Regrettably, it is cases like this that lower the reputation of lawyers to right-thinking members of the Canadian public. But “gonzo” aptly describes arguments that are “weird, eccentric and crazy”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Canada’s New Euthanasia Law

GEO_edited-1A perfectly healthy 24-year old woman in Belgium will be killed by her doctors only because she has “suicidal thoughts”. She does not suffer from any terminal disease or physical illness.

While Nazi Germany pioneered legal euthanasia, Switzerland was an early adopter, followed by Columbia in 1997, Holland in 2002 and Belgium in 2003. Belgium’s original law applied only to adults, but in February 2015 they extended the law to include children.

The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail quotes the woman as saying:

‘Death feels to me not as a choice. If I had a choice, I would choose a bearable life, but I have done everything and that was unsuccessful. I played all my life with these thoughts of suicide, I have also done a few attempts. But then there is someone who needs me, and I don’t want to hurt anyone. That has always stopped me.

Canada, of course, is never far behind when it comes to controversial social justice issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, legalized prostitution, and most recently, euthanasia.

In a historic decision this year, (Carter v. Canada) the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that desperately suffering patients have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, giving the government twelve months to draft legislation.

The criteria established by the Court is that the person must be a consenting adult under a physician’s care, who cannot tolerate the physical or psychological suffering brought on by a severe, incurable illness, disease or disability.

Only last week the government indicated that because of the coming election it will need more time to draft appropriate laws, a situation that will not likely induce sympathy from the high court.

But Belgium’s data on euthanasia will undoubtedly be studied by the government as they shape the new law. Interesting statistics include the following:

1. Euthanasia deaths are increasing year over year. In 2011 there were 1,133 and in 2012 1,432, an increase of 25%. In 2013 1,816 were euthanized, an increase of 27% over 2012.

2. Of the total cases in 2013 51.7% were men, while 48.3% were women.

3. Persons aged between 70 and 90 years accounted for 53.5%, those aged 60 to 70 represented 21% and those over 90, 7%. Persons under 60 made up 15% of the total cases.

Most of Belgium’s euthanasia deaths attract no attention, however, there have been several media-worthy deaths, including the assisted suicides of 45-year-old Belgian twins, Mark and Eddy Verbessem.

The twins were deaf and conversed in sign language and had been told to expect to lose their sight, but there was no indication their condition was “medically futile” or their mental suffering at the prospects of becoming blind, could not be alleviated with appropriate medical treatment. Also recent was the euthanization of a transgendered Belgium man who applied because he was horrified at the way he looked after hormone therapy and surgery.

Whoever forms the next government in Canada will be saddled with the responsibility of crafting a law that allows terminally ill patients to die with dignity, while still ensuring that vulnerable adults are protected, a goal that has apparently eluded the Belgians.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Vexatious Litigant

BarristerDr. Valery Fabrikant was an unstable, temperamental, and frustrated engineering professor at Concordia University in Montreal when he slaughtered four of his colleagues in 1992. Acting as his own lawyer, he sabotaged his case at trial, although his murderous actions were never in issue.

No doubt impressed with his own legal prowess, he continued to file lawsuits and was eventually declared a vexatious litigant by the Quebec Superior Court in 2000, an apparently ineffective tool as today the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed his attempt to appeal a Federal Court of Appeal ruling made in 2014.

So, how does one merit a vexatious litigant label? A vexatious litigant is a person who continually brings frivolous, unmeritorious law suits intended to harass, insult and abuse the victims of his court actions and to undermine the justice system. Vexatious litigants typically represent themselves as no legitimate lawyer will take on these cases.

Attaching this label to a litigant and curtailing his recourse to the courts or ensuring that no claim can be brought without the permission of the Chief Justice of the Court is a draconian measure that is only ordered in extreme cases.

Notable vexatious litigants include:

1. JULIAN KNIGHT, an Australian mass murderer with an IQ of 132 who gunned down seven people and injured 19 in the Hoddle Street Massacre in Victoria in 1987. Knight’s multiple lawsuits were directed at prison officials and the Australian government over issues concerning prison conditions, prison discipline, access to mail, solitary confinement, and a myriad of other petty complaints. Knight was eligible for parole in 2014 but the government enacted legislation that year preventing Knight’s release from prison.

2. LAWRENCE BITTAKER, a serial murderer from California who raped, tortured, and murdered five young female hitchhikers over a period of six months in 1979. Bittaker, with an !Q of 138, sits on California’s Death Row. He filed 40 separate lawsuits against the State of California including one claiming “cruel and unusual punishment” because he was served a broken cookie. He was declared a vexatious litigant in 1993 and requires the permission of a lawyer or judge before he can commence any court actions.

3. CLIFFORD OLSON, British Columbia serial killer of 11 children between the ages of 8 and 15, in 1981, was declared a vexatious litigant by the federal court in 1994. He had filed over 30 lawsuits over issues including his lack of access to the media, his designation as a sexual offender, and his inability to vote in elections. It was reported that his case prompted the Canadian government to legislate against early release law, called the “faint hope clause”, for serial killers.

Of course, not all vexatious litigants are deranged murderers, however, prison inmates seem to be attracted to this attention-getting tactic.

4. JONATHAN LEE RICHES is a former federal prisoner in Kentucky, convicted of wire fraud, who filed over 2,600 lawsuits in six years. Victims of his court filings included publishing maven Martha Stewart; former president George W. Bush; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick; gossip columnist Perez Hilton; pop singer Britney Spears; Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Psychiatrists describe vexatious litigants as suffering from “querulous paranoia” or “litigious paranoia”, a subtype of a delusional disorder manifested in persons who feel obsessively wronged about minor issues and petty offences, accompanied by groundless allegations.

Their deleterious impact on the justice system cannot be overstated and unfortunately, their numbers have escalated in the last twenty years.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Supreme Court of Canada Strikes Down Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Prohibited Firearms

BarristerEveryone said Hussein Nur, age 19, was a fine young man, smart, athletic, and a leader among his high school peers. Unfortunately, Mr. Nur was caught by the Toronto police with a working 22‑calibre semi-automatic gun with an oversized ammunition clip. There were 23 bullets in the clip and one in the chamber. When working properly, this prohibited firearm fires 24 rounds in 3.5 seconds. Nur, a first-time offender, was arrested and plead guilty to possession of a restricted weapon. He was sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years prescribed by the Criminal Code.

Sidney Charles was also arrested when Toronto police found a loaded Ruger semi-automatic handgun and ammunition in his bedroom. It was equipped with an over-capacity magazine, a prohibited device under the Criminal Code, containing 13 rounds of live 9-mm ammunition. The gun’s serial number had been scratched off. As a career criminal with multiple criminal convictions he was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment, the mandatory minimum for a repeat offender.

Both accused argued that the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences as prescribed by Canada’s Criminal Code constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and ought to be struck down as unconstitutional. Their cases wound their way up to the Supreme Court of Canada where six Justices agreed the law could not survive Charter scrutiny, although neither accused had their sentence reduced. (R. v. Nur 2015 SCC 15)

Perplexing isn’t it? The Court held the law was unconstitutional, but the minimum mandatory sentences were appropriate for each of Mr. Nur and Mr. Charles. How could the law be unconstitutional if the mandatory sentencing scheme was not cruel and unusual punishment?

Very simply, six Justices, Chief Justice McLachlan, LeBel, Abella, Cromwell, Karakatsanis and Gascon JJ. held that while the Nur and Charles’ sentences fit the crimes, there may be other cases where it would be “cruel and unusual” so better to get rid of the law now, before those cases occurred. Yes, the Court concluded that a minimum sentence may be challenged based on the circumstances of the offender before the court, or on other persons in hypothetical situations who may reasonably be caught unfairly by the law, such as persons who may commit minor licensing infractions without moral turpitude or danger to the public.

To that proposition three dissenting Justices, (Moldaver, Rothstein and Wagner JJ.) vigorously objected, declaring that the weapons applicable to mandatory sentences “have few legitimate purposes and are commonly used by criminals to devastating effect. Yet, despite Parliament’s valid and important objectives, the majority would declare these mandatory minimums unconstitutional on the basis that, in “reasonably foreseeable” cases, they could lead to grossly disproportionate sentences in violation of s. 12 (cruel and unusual punishment) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”.

The dissenters take issue with the majority’s suggestion that innocuous licensing cases, that may or may not occur, support the striking down of the mandatory gun law, keeping in mind Chief Justice McLachlan’s statement that “gun-related crime poses a grave danger to Canadians.”

They note that Section 95 of the Criminal Code was enacted in 1995 and has been in force for nearly two decades. They say it has always included a mandatory minimum sentence for cases prosecuted by indictment. Since 2008, it has included the present three-year and five-year mandatory minimums. The Criminal Code gives prosecutors the option of proceeding with a matter by indictment or summarily, a discretion that abounds in the Criminal Code. Summary proceedings do not attract mandatory minimum sentences. They point out the unlikely probability of the majority’s concerns:

“And yet, the respondents Mr. Nur and Mr. Charles are unable to point to a single licensing-type case over its entire history where a mandatory minimum imposed under s. 95(2) could be regarded as grossly disproportionate. Moreover, they cannot identify a single case where an offender who has committed a “licensing offenc[e] . . . involv[ing] little or no moral fault and little or no danger to the public” has been prosecuted and subject to a mandatory sentence.”

In an unusual departure from Supreme Court of Canada protocol, the Chief Justice remarks that she has read the dissenting Reasons in advance and criticizes the dissenters’ opinion:

“I add this about my colleague’s proposed framework. The protection it offers against grossly disproportionate punishment is illusory: in practice it would create a situation where the exercise of the prosecutor’s discretion is effectively immune from meaningful review. The abuse of discretion standard is a notoriously high bar and has no place in this Court’s jurisprudence under s. 12 of the Charter. The proposed framework would be a radical departure from the constitutional framework in these cases, and offers scant protection from grossly disproportionate sentences being imposed on offender.”

Commendably the dissenters express the obvious: That it is our elected representatives who are responsible for making Canada's laws and "it is not for this Court to frustrate the policy goals of our elected representatives based on questionable assumptions or loose conjecture."

Alas, the majority rules, as it should, but the polarization of the Court's judges is worthy of note, as is the majority's propensity to once again turf Stephen Harper's "law and order" agenda.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Tough Talk With Judges: Dore v. Barreau du Quebec

The Canadian courtroom is not a venue for the faint of heart. It is “ground zero” for our adversarial system of justice, pitting the state against a criminal accused; corporate titans battling competitors; spouses jousting to establish a fair division of the spoils of their marriage; and average citizens seeking redress for motor vehicle accidents, human rights complaints, estate disputes and so many other legal matters that are part of everyday life.

“See you in court” is a threat that is feared by most people, with the exception of trial lawyers, who have studied, practiced and for the most part, crave the adrenalin pumping through their veins, like gladiators entering the arena.

In hard-fought cases, clients expect their lawyers to champion their cause aggressively with a “take-no-prisoners” zeal. Many trial lawyers are proud to be called “a bulldog, a bruiser, a basher, a pit-bull” and other normally unflattering nicknames.

Within this milieu it is inevitable that advocates will lock horns with opposing counsel, and judges and lawyers will occasionally spar with one other. However, there is a fine line between passionate argument and unchecked invective when the heat in a courtroom accelerates.

In a 2012 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Dore v. Barreau du Quebec, lawyers and judges alike have been provided with guidance on courtroom etiquette that balances an advocate’s duty to aggressively defend a client, with their obligation to maintain professional decorum.

Quebec lawyer Gilles Dore was representing an accused in a criminal matter involving a Hells Angels prosecution before Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Boilard. During Mr. Dore’s submissions, Judge Boilard chastised Mr. Dore, saying “an insolent lawyer is rarely of use to his client”, and later criticized Mr. Dore for his “bombastic rhetoric and hyperbole” and dismissed his “ridiculous” application.

After the hearing Mr. Dore delivered a scathing letter to Judge Boilard, calling him a “coward…pedantic…aggressive…petty… arrogant… unjust…that he was of dubious legal acumen” and made “shamefully ugly, vulgar and mean personal attacks on the unsuspecting”.

Mr. Dore also wrote the Chief Justice of the Quebec Court and the Canadian Judicial Council about Judge Boilard’s behavior.

Canada’s Judicial Council determined that Judge Boilard’s remarks were “insulting and unjustifiably derogatory…displaying a flagrant lack of respect for an officer of the court”. The Council also reviewed Judge Boilard’s track record and noted he had “a penchant for leveling personal, denigrating attacks against lawyers”.

Judge Boilard responded by removing himself as trial judge on the Hells Angel’s trial, while Mr. Dore was defending himself against a complaint made to the Barreau du Quebec, who ultimately found that his letter to Judge Boilard was “likely to offend and was rude and insulting”. Mr. Dore had his license to practice law suspended for 21 days. His suspension was upheld by the Quebec trial and appeal courts.

Canada’s highest court in a 7-0 decision, agreed with the lower courts, but held that judges are not fragile flowers unable to withstand withering critiques from lawyers who argue before them.

Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said “Lawyers should not be expected to behave like verbal eunuchs. They not only have a right to speak their minds freely, they arguably have a duty to do so. But they are constrained by their profession to do so with dignified restraint.”

Judge Abella also recognized the conundrum lawyers face when provoked by opposing counsel or members of the bench noting, “…it is precisely when a lawyer’s equilibrium is unduly tested that he or she is particularly called upon to behave with transcendent civility.”

This case is important, not only for addressing the difficult topic of conflict between counsel and the Court, but also in providing a framework for lawyers and other players in the justice system to understand the boundaries when speaking out about flaws in the system they work in.

While lawyers enjoy freedom of expression, their words must still be chosen wisely in order to balance their obligations to their clients, with the professionalism required of them by their governing bodies and the public.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang