Groia v. The Law Society of Upper Canada, 2016 ONCA 471, provides guidance regarding counsel's duty of zealous advocacy in the context of counsel's corresponding duty to act with courtesy, civility, and good faith in dealing with the courts, fellow counsel, and all participants in the justice system.

In Groia, the Ontario Court of Appeal considered important issues about the requirements for professionalism in the conduct of litigation, the test for establishing professional misconduct for uncivil behaviour, and the roles of the Law Society and the courts in addressing an advocate's uncivil conduct in court towards opposing counsel.

Background

Conduct at trial

Mr. Groia is a barrister and solicitor licensed by the Law Society of Upper Canada (the "Law Society") to practise law in Ontario. He defended John Bernard Felderhof, a senior officer and director of Bre-X Minerals Ltd., on eight charges of violating the Securities Act which arose out of the collapse of Bre-X as a result of fraudulent claims that it had discovered lucrative gold deposits in Borneo. Mr. Felderhof was acquitted of all charges.

The Ontario Court of Appeal stated that to describe the criminal proceedings against Mr. Felderhof as "complex, protracted and exceptionally acrimonious significantly understates the time-consuming, stressful, and confrontational climate that rapidly infected the proceeding." Almost from the outset of the proceedings disputes between the prosecution and Mr. Groia arose regarding the prosecution's compliance with their Stinchcombe disclosure obligations and the propriety of their approach to the case. Mr. Groia brought numerous allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. After 70 days of trial, the evidence of the first prosecution witness had yet to be completed. By day 70, the toxic nature of the dealings between Mr. Groia and the prosecutors was sufficiently pervasive as to overtake the orderly and normal progress of the trial.

These circumstances led to a judicial review application seeking orders prohibiting the continuation of the trial before the trial judge, quashing rulings he had made, and directing that the trial begin anew before a different judge. On the judicial review application, the application judge found that, on numerous occasions during the trial, Mr. Groia's conduct had been "improper," "appallingly unrestrained," "unprofessional," "inappropriate," and "extreme." The application judge dismissed the judicial review application and remitted the matter back to the trial judge for the continuation of the trial, holding trial judge had not lost jurisdiction, that there had been "a degree of excess on each side," and that "neither side in this case has any monopoly over incivility or rhetorical excess." On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal described Mr. Groia's conduct as improper, inappropriate, and misconceived in law in many instances, which "prolonged the proceedings and provided a further platform for [his] excessive and often ill-considered remarks."

The trial occupied 160 days of court hearing time, spanning almost seven years, including the judicial review application and appeal.

Proceedings after trial

After the trial concluded, the Law Society initiated disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Groia alleging that he had engaged in professional misconduct during his defence of Mr. Felderhof. The Law Society asserted that Mr. Groia had engaged in multiple acts of professional misconduct in his dealings both with the court and the OSC prosecutors during the trial.

The Law Society Hearing Panel found:

  • Mr. Groia's attacks on prosecutors were unjustified and constituted conduct falling below the standards of civility, courtesy and good faith required under the its conduct rules. It also held that Mr. Groia's allegations of prosecutorial misconduct were "wrong in law" and that the positions he took on documents were "not well-founded in the law of evidence or in accord with usual practices in large document cases."
  • Mr. Groia did not act in good faith in advancing his allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Rather, he was motivated "to disrupt the orderly proceeding of the trial by provoking the prosecution and creating the conditions for the trial to collapse under its own weight."
  • The Law Society had proven all its professional misconduct allegations against Mr. Groia. It imposed a penalty of two months' suspension and a reprimand. It also awarded costs of the discipline hearing to the Law Society in the amount of $246,960.53, plus interest.

Mr. Groia appealed to the Law Society Appeal Panel. The Appeal Panel allowed his appeal in part, affirming the Hearing Panel's findings of professional misconduct relating to Mr. Groia's dealings with prosecutors, but varying the length of his suspension from two months to one month and reducing the costs award from $246,960.53 to $200,000.

At the hearing before the Appeal Panel, the parties agreed that allegations of prosecutorial misconduct impugning the integrity of opposing counsel should not be made unless they are advanced in good faith and on a reasonable basis, and on the appropriate test for assessing when making allegations of prosecutorial misconduct or that impugn the integrity of opposing counsel can violate an advocate's duty to be courteous, civil, and act in good faith, constituting professional misconduct. The Appeal Panel accepted the test as follows:

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.

Mr. Groia appealed the Appeal Panel's decisions to the Divisional Court. The Divisional Court dismissed both the appeal and the Law Society's costs cross-appeal. The Divisional Court held that the Appeal Panel's test for incivility did not "go far enough to protect the importance of zealous advocacy" and restated the test by adding the requirement that, in order for in-court incivility to constitute professional misconduct, it must be established that the conduct at issue is both uncivil and that it "undermined, or ... [had] the realistic prospect of undermining, the proper administration of justice."

Mr. Groia appealed the Divisional Court's decision to the Court of Appeal.

Duty of professionalism

On appeal to the Court of Appeal, Justices MacPherson and Cronk, in majority reasons, dismissed the appeal. In the process they provided the following comments regarding the requirement of professionalism for lawyers, both inside and outside a courtroom, including zealous advocacy accompanied by courtesy, civility, and good faith dealings:

  • The primary role of trial judges is to decide the contested issues and, in so doing, to safeguard the fairness of the trial, including the dignity and decorum of the proceeding, in order to strive to ensure a just result. Trial judges have a broad discretion "to ensure fairness and to see that justice is done and seen to be done." In contrast, the primary role of the Law Society is to ensure the professionalism of its licensees, measured against the standards of practice that apply to the entire profession. The majority held these are different roles requiring different expertise and experience.
  • Trial judges are entitled to manage a trial as part of their trial management power, founded on the court's inherent jurisdiction to control its own processes, in order to ensure that the trial is run effectively. This trial management power extends to the careful exercise of judicial supervision over the tactical and other conduct of litigants and counsel before the court (see: Krieger v. Law Society of Alberta, 2002 SCC 65 at para. 47). A trial judge, in the exercise of his or her discretion, is empowered to take those lawful and reasonable steps that he or she concludes are necessary to control uncivil or other unacceptable conduct by all participants in open court, including advocates.
  • The Law Society's mandate to ensure that lawyers conduct themselves professionally in and out of the courtroom does not in any way conflict with or erode a trial judge's trial management power or the independent authority of the courts. The trial judge's authority and the Law Society's authority "exist in tandem but are focused on different inquiries and are exercised for different purposes."
  • The duty of zealous advocacy must be jealously protected and broadly construed. But it is not absolute and must not be abused. The duty of zealous advocacy is not paramount. Under the Law Society's conduct rules there are a "constellation of obligations" that together make up the overarching duty of professionalism.
  • The duty of professionalism encompasses both the duty of zealous advocacy and the duty of courtesy and civility. The majority referred to Lord Reid's statement in Rondel v. Worsley, [1969] 1 A.C. 191 at 227:

Every counsel has a duty to his client fearlessly to raise every issue, advance every argument and ask every question, however distasteful, which he thinks will help his client's case. But, as an officer of the Court concerned in the administration of justice, he has an overriding duty to the Court, to the standards of his profession, and to the public, which may and often does lead to a conflict with his client's wishes or with what the client thinks are his personal interests. Counsel must not mislead the Court, 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... [Emphasis added by majority.]

  • The crucial point is that all participants in litigation and the public have a legitimate right to expect that the advocate's duty of zealous advocacy will be tempered by the overriding duty to adhere to all the standards of the profession, including the duty to act with courtesy and civility and in good faith. An advocate's duty to his or her client does not permit the advocate to act unprofessionally. Nor does it absolve an advocate from "heeding his duty to the Court and to his fellow solicitors" (see: R. v. Elliott (1975), 28 C.C.C. (2d) 546 (Ont. C.A.) at p. 549; Goldberg v. Law Society of British Columbia, 2009 BCCA 147 at para. 45; Dor v. Barreau du Qubec, 2012 SCC 12 at para. 65).

The majority held the Appeal Panel's formulation of the test for incivility, its conclusion that Mr. Groia engaged in professional misconduct, and its determination of an appropriate sanction for that misconduct were reasonable. It stated:

At the end of the day, the relevant question is whether the type of proven conduct at issue, in the applicable context and factual circumstances, may reasonably and, hence, objectively be said to fall below the standard of conduct for advocates that the public and the profession at large have a right to expect.

The majority concluded with a reminder that trials are not just about the resolution of the immediate dispute between the parties, they are also about the trial judge, the witnesses, court staff, the appropriate use of court resources, and the public. Trials engage the public interest, and advocates have responsibilities to the court, their client, and the administration of justice.