Case Report – Whistle-blower leaks privileged report to Crown… charges stayed

Today, the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed an appeal of a noteworthy case about breach of privilege by the Crown.

The case involves an investigation report prepared at the request of external legal counsel after a critical injury for which Occupational Health and Safety Act charges were ultimately laid. An employee who was given a draft of the report on the undertaking he destroy it gave a copy to the Crown. This was after the company had asserted privilege to the Ministry inspector, who had agreed not to order the report’s production.

When the Crown disclosed the report to the company in its Stinchcombe production the company immediately objected, and at trial moved before a justice of the peace for a declaration (that the report was privileged) and a stay. It initially succeeded in obtaining a declaration, a stay and an order for $38,000 in legal costs. On appeal to a judge, the Court overturned the stay and the costs order. It held that the proper remedy for breach of the defendants’ section 8 rights was an order excluding the report and that the motion for a stay based on prejudice to trial fairness was premature.

In allowing the appeal, the Court of Appeal started by minimizing a statement made by the justice of the peace about the reporting being “primarily informational.” It held the lower court had found the report was subject to solicitor-client privilege and that this point was not challenged in the appeal.

The Court of Appeal then held that the presumption of prejudice endorsed by a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in Celanese applies when the Crown comes into possession of a defendant’s solicitor-client communications:

Counsel for the Crown in this court sought to distinguish Celanese on the basis that it was a civil case in which the appellants were “attempting to utilize a civil onus to achieve a criminal result”. I reject this submission. In my view, the above cases support the proposition that when the Crown comes into possession of a defence document that is protected by solicitor-client and litigation privilege, prejudice to the defence will be presumed. The presumption, however, is rebuttable.

On the facts, the Court of Appeal held that a stay was the appropriate remedy. The basis for the finding is narrow. It stressed that the justice of the peace had made a specific finding that the report set out items that could be used to the disadvantage and prejudice of the defendants and held that the Crown had not led any evidence about its distribution and use of the report to rebut the inference.

R v. Bruce Power, 2009 ONCA 573.

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