Notes on the Appeal Panel’s Decision in Joseph Groia and the Law Society of Upper Canada

On November 28, 2013, the Appeal Panel’s decision was released. The decision is publicly available on www.canlii.org (2013 ONSLAP 0041 (CanLII)).

The central question addressed by this case is when does a lawyer engage in professional misconduct because of his/her communications in a courtroom? The Appeal Panel’s comments in answer to this question are highlighted below.

Civility does not discourage zealous advocacy 

The Appeal Panel emphasized that although the use of the term “incivility” is a useful general term to describe a range of unprofessional communications, it should not be used to discourage zealous advocacy and may obscure the true nature of “ethical misconduct.” Some of the Appeal Panel’s comments in this regard are set out below. 
 
    [209]   Although  the  term ‘civility’  is  used  in  the  Rules  of  Professional  Conduct  (and  in The Advocates’ Society’s Principles of Civility) and is a useful short form or umbrella term, it does  not  adequately  capture  many  forms  of unprofessional communications  that  go  well beyond  rudeness  or  lack  of  courtesy.  Indeed,  we  agree  with  the  Appellant’s  witness, Professor Alice Woolley,  that the word  ‘civility’ may tend  to  obscure the true  nature of the     ethical    misconduct    of    lawyers subject to discipline for unprofessional communications.       

    [210]   Professor  Woolley  gives  the  example  of the  lawyer  who  was  disciplined  for  writing  a letter  to  a  mediator  with  whom he  was  having  a  billing  dispute. The lawyer said “get ready because I can be ten times a bigger asshole than you, you want to fight, go ahead.” She also cites the example of the lawyer for the plaintiff who used a sexist  and  degrading expletive  to  describe  the  female  representative  of the  defendant  insurer. These lawyers are not unprofessional merely because their words are rude and uncouth but also because the nature of their rudeness violates fundamental ethical obligations. In the first case, the lawyer effectively threatened the mediator in order to obtain a legal benefit. In the latter case, the lawyer’s rudeness was directed at an opposing party and could have inhibited her willingness to participate fully and openly in the litigation process. [Emphasis added].

    [211]   In  other  words,  mandating  ‘civility’  protects  and  enhances  the  administration  of justice. Accordingly,  the  word  ‘civility’  should  not  be  used  to  discourage  fearless  advocacy manifested   by   passionate,   brave  and   bold   language.   Indeed,   it mischaracterizes   the primary   objective   and   meaning   of civility obligations to suggest that they mandate politeness or create an obligation akin to ‘being nice to each other’.  In any event, as is discussed more fully below, in this case the conduct which is alleged to have ‘crossed the line’ is not mere rudeness, let alone bad manners.  Nor is it simply ‘excess rhetoric’ or ‘sarcastic remarks’ about opposing counsel. In this case, the specific issue is the extent to which   zealous   defence   counsel may   impugn   the integrity of opposing counsel and secondly, whether and to what extent, that in fact occurred.

Discipline is not reserved for the most extreme cases   

While it may take more than “mere rudeness” or “bad manners” to amount to professional misconduct, the Appeal Panel determined that professional discipline should not be reserved for the most extreme conduct or only that which results in a miscarriage of justice. Some of the Appeal Panel’s comments in this regard are set out below. 

    [224]   In our view, the plain language of the Rules of Professional Conduct is inconsistent with such   ‘preconditions.’   Specifically,   equating   a   breach   of the   Rules   of   Professional Conduct   with   a finding   of contempt   expressly   contradicts   the   language   of the commentary to Rule 4.01(6) which provides:

            4.01(6) Legal contempt  of court  and  the professional obligation outlined  here  are not  identical,  and  a consistent pattern of rude, provocative, or disruptive conduct by  the  lawyer,  even  though  unpunished  as  contempt,  might  well merit discipline. (emphasis added)

    [225]   We  also  reject  the  submission  that  a  lawyer’s  professional obligations  in the  courtroom should be determined solely by the views of the presiding judge or other adjudicator.   On this  point,  we  agree  with  the  submission  of  The  Advocates’  Society  that,  the  views, comments,    or   complaints   made   by   the   trial   judge   about    counsel’s   courtroom communications may either be too  harsh or too  lenient.  After all, the primary role of the trial judge is to ensure a fair trial, not to regulate lawyers’ conduct.   Moreover, there may be many reasons why a trial judge may choose to remain relatively passive in the face of one  or  both  counsels’  courtroom incivility,  for  example,  in  order  to  keep  the  ‘trial on track,’ to avoid ‘entering the fray’ or out of a concern that  attempts  to reprimand counsel may  cause  an  escalation  of  the  behaviour  and  trigger   allegations  of  judicial  bias  or unfairness.  In sum, the reaction of the trial judge although relevant is not determinative.

    [226]   Likewise, Mr. Groia’s submission that there can be no finding of professional misconduct unless the behaviour of counsel and the trial judge is so egregious that both are  subjected to  discipline  is  also  too  restrictive.  Simply  stated,  as  a  matter  of public  protection,  it cannot  be  that  the  Law  Society’s  disciplinary  jurisdiction  over  unprofessional courtroom communications  should  only  be  exercised  in  those cases where  both the trial judge and counsel misbehave.

    [228]   Again,  in  our  view,  the  plain language of the  Rules of  Professional Conduct  does not support  these  submissions.   In  addition,  as  the  Marchand  case  clearly  demonstrates, although  the  harmful  effects  of  courtroom  incivility  on  the  administration  of  justice  will rarely cause the trial judge to lose jurisdiction or cause a miscarriage of justice, the risk of harm to  either  a  particular  proceeding  or  the  justice  system as  a  whole is nevertheless real.    By  virtue  of an  advocate’s  training  and  expertise,  she  has  the privileged  right to speak  in Ontario  courtrooms.  Her voice carries authority and is persuasive. Her criticisms of ‘public  authorities’  or  other  stakeholders  in  the  justice  system,  such as her opposing counsel,   carry   a   special   weight   and   with   that,   the   potential   to   undermine.   The commentaries to Rules 4.01 and 4.06 speak to this issue:

        Maintaining  dignity,  decorum  and  courtesy  in  the  courtroom  is  not  an  empty formality  because, order is maintained,  rights cannot be protected…

A lawyer,  by training,  opportunity,  and  experience is in a position to observe the workings  and  discover  the  strengths  and  weaknesses  of  laws,  legal institutions, and  public  authorities.  A  lawyer  should,  therefore,  lead  in  seeking improvements in  the  legal  system,  but  any  criticisms  and  proposals  should  be  bona  fide  and reasoned.

    [229]   In  addition,  the  commentary  to  Rule  6.03(1)  specifically  underscores  the  importance  to the administration of justice of ‘fair and courteous’ dealings between lawyers:

            The  public  interest  demands  that  matters  entrusted  to  a  lawyer  be  dealt  with effectively  and  expeditiously,  and  fair  and  courteous  dealing on the part of each lawyer engaged  in a matter will contribute materially to this end. The lawyer who behaves  otherwise  does  a  disservice  to  the  client,  and  neglect  of the  rule  will impair  the ability  of lawyers to perform their function  properly…

            The  presence  of personal animosity  between  licensees  involved  in  a  matter may cause  their  judgment  to  be  clouded  by  emotional factors  and  hinder the proper resolution  of the  matter.  Personal remarks or personally abusive tactics interfere with the orderly administration of justice and have no place in our legal system

            A  lawyer  should  avoid  ill-considered  or  uninformed  criticism of the competence, conduct,  advice,  or  charges  of  other  licensees,  but  should  be  prepared  when requested,   to   advise  and   represent  a  client  in  a  complaint  involving  another licensee.101

A contextual analysis is required

The Appeal Panel concluded that determining when uncivil courtroom communication “crosses the line” is contextual and fact-specific. Specifically, the Appeal Panel commented as follows: 
 
    [232]   In  our  view,  determining  when  uncivil  courtroom  communication  ‘crosses  the  line’  is, therefore,  fundamentally  contextual  and  fact-specific.  A contextual analysis will ensure that the vicissitudes that confront courtroom advocates are fairly accounted for so as not to create a chilling effect on zealous advocacy.  We agree with the comments of Justice Campbell in R. v. Felderhof when he said:

            …it would have a chilling effect on the vigour of defence advocacy if counsel had to  parse their language and  self-censor each word  to  ensure that it was perfectly tailored  to  the  occasion  and  could  give  no  offence.  The dividing line between colourful language and abusive language is not always clear…103

    [233]   In  assessing  the  context  of courtroom communications,  it  will be  important  to  consider the  dynamics,  complexity  and  particular  burdens and  stakes of the trial.  Trials  are often difficult  for  the  advocate  and  the  client,  but  some  are  particularly  so.  Many are hard fought. Advocates may be under immense pressure.  Sometimes things go awry.  It may not be possible to maintain an atmosphere of calm and efficiency.  Accordingly, a few ill- chosen words  or sarcastic or even nasty comments directed  at  one’s opponent  may not constitute  professional  misconduct  justifying  a  discipline   proceeding,  particularly  if  they reflect  a  moment  of  ill-temper  and  an  apology  is   made.  Provocation from opposing counsel is a relevant consideration, but it is not a complete defence. The transcript of the proceeding,   together   with   counsel’s   explanations   of  her  conduct,   must  be  carefully examined   in  the  context  of  all  the  surrounding  circumstances  including  the  important public interest that lawyers vigorously  and courageously  advocate for their clients.

Good faith and reasonable basis test 

In applying the above principles to the facts of this case, the Appeal Panel had to determine the extent to which zealous defence counsel may impugn the integrity of opposing counsel or make allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Some of the Appeal Panel’s comments in this regard are set out below.   

    [235]   We agree with the parties’ articulation of the test.  In  our  view,  it  is   professional misconduct  to  make  allegations  of prosecutorial misconduct  or  that  impugn  the  integrity of opposing counsel unless they are both made in good faith and have a reasonable basis. A bona fide belief is insufficient; it gives too much licence to irresponsible counsel with sincere   but   nevertheless   unsupportable   suspicions   of   opposing   counsel.   In  R. v. Felderhof,  Justice Rosenberg made reference to the  well-known passage from Rondel v. Worsley  where Lord  Reid  said,  in part that,  “[c]ounsel must not mislead the court, [and] he must not lend  himself to  casting  aspersions  on the other party or witnesses for which there  is  no  sufficient  basis  in  the  information  in  his  possession.”104  Justice Rosenberg applied that principle to casting aspersions on opposing counsel for which there was no reasonable foundation.

    [236]   In  addition,  even  when a lawyer honestly and  reasonably believes that opposing  counsel is  engaging  in  prosecutorial  misconduct  or  professional  misconduct  more  generally,  she must  avoid  use  of  invective  to  raise  the  issue.  That  is,  it  is  unprofessional  to  make submissions about opposing counsel’s improper conduct,  to  paraphrase  Justice Campbell, in a ‘repetitive  stream of invective’  that attacks that counsel’s  professional  integrity.105