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SCC deals blow to privacy commissioner powers – privilege reigns supreme

28 Nov

Yesterday the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision in which it held that the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta does not have the power to compel the production of documents over which solicitor-client privilege is claimed in conducting an access inquiry under Alberta’s public sector access and privacy statute. 

The case – which arose out of an access request made to the University of Calgary – is a sequel to the 2008 Blood Tribe Department of Health case in which the Supreme Court of Canada made a similar finding regarding the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s powers under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. Blood Tribe established that solicitor-client privilege cannot be abrogated by statutory language that is any less than “clear, explicit and unequivocal.” PIPEDA, however, is a unique statute. It establishes the OPC as an ombudsperson and not in adjudicator, and the power to produce that the OPC relied upon in Blood Tribe was drafted in the most general terms. Accordingly, Blood Tribe left a question about the powers of other privacy commissioners under more traditional statutes.

That question is now answered.

The Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act gives the Alberta Commissioner the power to order production despite “any privilege of the law of evidence.” This phrase appears in a number of other public sector access and privacy statutes as does the similar phrase “any privilege under the law of evidence.” Ten privacy and access authorities therefore intervened in the University of Calgary case to argue in support of their mandates.

Nonetheless, a five judge majority held that the language of Alberta FIPPA is not clear enough to override solicitor-client privilege. The majority took pains to root its analysis in statutory interpretation principles, but its finding is best understood as reflecting a near absolute dedication to the supremacy of solicitor-client privilege. The majority also viewed the Alberta Commissioner as something less than an impartial adjudicator, alluding to the tradition by which information commissioners often act as parties in reviews of their own orders.

We must be careful in drawing broad conclusions about a finding under a particular access and privacy statute, but this decision will have a ripple effect. Commissioners across Canada may adjust their protocols for dealing with solicitor-client privilege claims and may lobby for statutory amendments. University of Calgary is a good news decision for institutions given the burden of arguing solicitor-client privilege claims on a record-by-record basis.

Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. University of Calgary, 2016 SCC 53 (CanLII).

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Ont CA addresses inadvertent disclosures and privilege waiver

31 Jul

On July 15th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario said the following about when an inadvertent disclosure of a solicitor-client communication will result in the waiver of privilege:

Inadvertent disclosure does not necessarily mean that privilege has been waived. While waiver of solicitor-client privilege can be express or implied, whether privilege has been waived by inadvertent disclosure is a fact-specific inquiry, which may include consideration of the following factors:

  • The way in which the documents came to be released;
  • Whether there was a prompt attempt to retrieve the documents after the disclosure was discovered;
  • The timing of the discovery of the disclosure;
  • The timing of the application;
  • The number and nature of the third parties who have become aware of the documents;
  • Whether maintenance of the privilege will create an actual or perceived unfairness to the opposing party; and
  • The impact on the fairness, both actual or perceived, of the processes of the court.

See Airst v. Airst (1998), 1998 CanLII 14647 (ON SC), 37 O.R. (3d) 654 (C.J. (Gen. Div.)), at pp. 659-60; and Chapelstone Developments Inc. v. Canada, 2005 NBCA 96 (CanLII), 191 C.C.C. (3d) 152, at para. 55, leave to appeal to SCC refused, [2005] S.C.C.A. No. 38.

In the circumstances, the Court held that a party had not inadvertently waived privilege. The disclosure, however, was not without a consequence. The Court said, “This is not a case for costs, given that the issue arose as a result of the moving party’s own counsel’s error.”

R v Ward, 2016 ONCA 568 (CanLII).

Lawyer’s communications with witnesses to harassment privileged, privileged waived

4 Mar

In late June of last year, Arbitrator Moore held that communications between a lawyer retained to investigate a harassment complaint and various bargaining unit members were subject to solicitor-client privilege, but that the employer waived privilege by relying on the investigator’s conclusions in its discipline letter.

The employer used a very strong retainer letter that clearly established the investigator’s mandate was to gather facts and evidence for the purpose of providing legal advice. The letter (admitted into evidence by the Union without challenge) was sufficient to establish that the sought-after communications were privileged. Significantly, Arbitrator Moore held that communications with unionized employees undertaken for the purpose of providing legal advice can still be privileged communications:

Thus, I have not been referred to any authority that supports the proposition that employees, by virtue of being unionized, are to be regarded as third parties.  While the legal rights of unionized employees are certainly impacted by the exclusive representational rights accorded to unions by statute, and may be further altered by collective agreement provisions, the employees are, in my view, still fundamentally employees of the employer.Accordingly, I do not find the fact that the employees are unionized to be a relevant consideration.  It does not alter my conclusion that they are not third parties.  The communications between the lawyer and the employees, therefore, took place within the relationship between the solicitor and the client and fall within the scope of the privilege.

Arbitrator Moore also rejected a very bold argument from the union that arbitrators should apply a distinct concept of solicitor-client privilege that provides “practical labour relations results for the participants.” Arbitrator Moore reasoned that the license given to labour arbitrators was not so broad “as to abrogate a principle as fundamental and protected as solicitor-client privilege.”

Although the employer established solicitor-client privilege and did not seek to rely on the investigator’s report at arbitration, Arbitrator Moore held that it waived privilege by relying on the investigator’s conclusion in its disciplinary letter. The letter read as follows:

The investigator concluded that your  conduct towards the complainant violated  Metro Vancouver’s Workplace Harassment Prevention Policy and directly contributed to a detrimental  work  environment  for  the  complainant  while he  was  employed  by  Metro Vancouver. Specifically, the investigator found that you were responsible for creating a harassing and discriminatory posting about the complainant and placing it in the Coquitlam guard house. In addition, the investigator found that you made discriminatory and harassing statements about the complainant in the work place. The investigator also concluded that you were not fully forthcoming with him during the investigation process. We accept the investigators [sic] findings and conclusions regarding your conduct. We conclude that your behaviour has been both discriminatory towards the complainant and has also violated Metro Vancouver’s expectations of appropriate employee behaviour.

As effective as the employer’s retainer letter was at establishing privilege, the employer’s discipline letter was a clear invitation to a waiver finding. This employer’s efforts nonetheless leaves other employers with a good road map for investigating sensitive internal matters under the protection of solicitor-client privilege. The retainer letter used by the employer is included in the award. It is a good model.

Vancouver (Regional District) v Greater Vancouver Regional District Employees’ Union, 2015 CanLII 87692 (BC LA).

Party defending against claim based on prior settlement does not waive settlement privilege

30 Oct

On September 30th, the Divisional Court held that a party defending against claim based on prior settlement does not waive settlement privilege. The Court reasoned as follows:

Consistent with such notions of fairness, we are satisfied that the LCBO has not waived settlement privilege in this case. The LCBO claims that Magnotta’s current actions advance the same claims as the prior settled proceedings, and we express no view on that assertion. However, the LCBO should, as a matter of fairness, be able to raise the settlement in its defence and in support of its proposed motion, without automatically losing the benefit of settlement privilege. In particular, the LCBO should be able to rely on the Minutes of Settlement for this purpose.

The defendant obtained a sealing order based on the public interest in encouraging parties to settle their disputes.

Magnotta Winery Corp v Ontario (Alcohol and Gaming Commission), 2015 ONSC 6234 (CanLII).

Alberta CA deals with FOI standing issue, settlement privilege and more

19 Jul

The Court of Appeal of Alberta issued a decision on July 16th that dealt with a significant FOI standing issue among other issues relevant to FOI practitioners.

The Court quashed the Alberta OIPC’s appeal of a lower court decision to quash an order by which the OIPC compelled the Minister of the Environment to disclose a remediation agreement it entered into with Imperial Oil. It also, in obiter, affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Court quashed the appeal based on a finding that the OIPC had no standing. Alberta case law establishes that a statutory tribunal whose own decision has been quashed on judicial review cannot appeal from that order unless its own jurisdiction is in question. The Court applied this to the OIPC despite the OIPC’s arguments about the unique role of an FOI adjudicator.

In addressing whether the remediation agreement was accessible to the public, the Court held that the agreement was subject to settlement privilege and that the OIPC had erred in finding that settlement privilege does not apply to final agreements. The application of settlement privilege to final agreements gives potentially wide protection to agreements between public institutions and outside parties and is now supported by the the Supreme Court of Canada based on its June 2013 decision in Sable Offshore Energy Inc. v Ameron International Corp.

The Court also interpreted a requirement common to third-party harms exemptions in Canadian FOI statutes that demands information “of the third-party” to qualify. It said:

The exception does not necessarily require ownership in the strict sense; the private party supplying the information would not have to prove that it had a patent or copyright on the information. If the private entity took scientific, financial, or commercial information that was in the public realm, and then applied that information to its specific business, property, and affairs, the resulting data would still be “of the third party”. In other words, it is the information as applied to the business of the third party that would be “of the third party”, not the background scientific or economic principles underlining that information.

The Court held that the OIPC erred in finding that expert reports prepared for Imperial Oil and appended to the agreements did not contain information “of Imperial Oil” because the reports “were developed at the request of the Public Body or in consultation with it.”

Imperial Oil Limited v Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2014 ABCA 231 (CanLII).

Ontario court says PIPEDA does not apply to LawPro

29 Sep

On August 28th, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that LawPro (who insures Ontario lawyers) was entitled to report various allegations made against an insured to the Law Society of Upper Canada.

LawPro made the report after the insured was sued and before it denied him coverage.  The Court held that LawPro wrongly denied coverage but dismissed the insured’s breach of confidence and privacy claim.

The Court held that LawPro did not breach PIPEDA because it is not engaged in commercial activity. It explained:

Counsel for LawPro submits, correctly in my view, that the providing of mandatory professional liability insurance to the province’s lawyers is not a commercial activity within the meaning of section 4(1)(a) of PIPEDA. Although LawPro is designed to conduct itself in a financially viable manner, its principal shareholder is the Law Society – a regulatory body – and its mandate entails “a commitment to working with the bar in the public interest over the long term”. LawPro, Our Story: 15 Years of Making a Difference (Lawyers Professional Indemnity Company, 2010), online: http://www.practicepro.ca/LawPROmag/15Anniversary Booklet.pdf, at p. 4. That mandate takes LawPro outside of the type of activities to which PIPEDA applies.

The Court also held that LawPro acted properly in making the report notwithstanding the insured’s argument that his communications with LawPro were made to a solicitor in his and LawPro’s common interest and were therefore subject to solicitor-client privilege. The Court held that LawPro had a duty to report that superseded solicitor-client privilege.

(Is there really such a duty? I question whether the decision merely suggests that LawPro was entitled, as a matter of public interest, to report.)

Cusack v The Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Co., 2013 ONSC 5511 (CanLII).

Non-party witness can receive document subject to litigation privilege

7 Sep

On August 23rd, the Supreme Court of British Columbia held that a non-party witness should have access to a statement she gave to an insurance adjuster even though it was subject to the adjuster’s litigation privilege. It said:

Although the respondent is entitled to have its litigation privilege protected, fairness requires that the petitioner be provided with a copy of her statement. The petitioner is a stranger to the litigation about the accident; she is not a party and she has no interest in it. I note that, if the petitioner was a party, there would be no question that she would be entitled to her statements, as I will discuss below. I have some difficulty imposing on a private citizen the rules of a “sporting event” that are more onerous than those placed on parties. The risk of applying those rules to a non-litigant without legal representation is that a person can, through accident or ignorance, make a mistake. The mistake can be only embarrassing to the non-litigant and/or it can distort the evidence before the court. Neither is desirable.

Within the bounds of an adversarial system, private citizens should be encouraged to participate in the litigation process and disclosure to them of previous statements, as in this case, is a modest way to accomplish that objective. The petitioner could have insisted on some kind of legal document that assured her that she would get a copy of her statement before she gave it. She did not do that. In my view, she did not have to do it and nor should she now be at a disadvantage greater than a party for failing to do it.

It ordered the statement to be produced to the witness with the proviso that it the witness keep the statement confidential.

Minnie v ICBC, 2013 BCSC 1528 (CanLII).