30 August 2011

Rumpole and the Black Letter

Local barrister Averill Baker is threatening to sue the Crown prosecutors for persecution based on their recent application to have her tossed off a case for being in a conflict of interest.

The nature of the conflict of interest is complicated.  There may be much the public doesn’t know from court documents that earlier were sealed.

Ms. AB once represented the victim in a break-in her late client was alleged to have conducted.  In the course of the break-in and attempted robbery is alleged to have shot one of his alleged co-conspirators.

A conflict of another sort apparently broke out in the court room when the lawyers and the accused got together to hear the judge’s decision on the conflict of interest.

The accused, Philip Pynn, kept trying to interject.  The judge ordered him to clam up and when he didn’t, reminded the young fellow he could have the Sherriff’s officers gag him.

Bit extreme, but not something judges are known to do for people who aren’t disrupting proceedings.

In any event, the judge told Ms. AB she had to stand aside.

Ms. AB found it all troubling.  As CBC reports,

"This is a sad day," Baker said.

"I have lost one of my most important clients, as I say, he's been with our firm since 2005, and we were the victims of an attack by the Crown," said Baker.

One might think so.

Think that way, that is, unless one was familiar – as Ms. AB ought to be – with the way the courts have ruled on the business of conflict of interest.

The court standard is laid down in the decision on an application in R v. Brissett.

The Crown applies for a disqualifying order, on account of alleged conflict of interest, removing the Defendant’s two solicitors of record from defending him on charges of the first degree murder of Demar Ranglin and the attempted murder of Joseph Cunningham.  No date has been scheduled for the trial.

To this point, Mr. Brissett has been represented by Mr. Stephen Bernstein and Mr. David McComb.  The prosecution submits that because Mr. McComb previously acted as counsel for Mr. Cunningham, his current counsel, both of whom practice in the same law firm, are in a conflict of interest position in purporting to defend Mr. Brissett in a trial where Mr. Cunningham is not only a principal Crown witness but also an alleged victim of one of the crimes charged.

As it turned out, the firm acted for the fellow so long ago that neither of the two partners could recall it.  But that’s as maybe, as far as the courts are concerned.

The court laid out the principles succinctly.

First,  there was the matter of the timing of the application.  The Crown must raise the conflict issue as soon as possible.  Incidentally, in the case with Ms. AB, they did so almost immediately after laying the charges against Pynn.

Second, was conflict and the duty of loyalty to the client.  That’s essentially the nub of the problem:  one cannot serve two interests simultaneously.

Third, there’s the duty to preserve client confidences.

Fourth, the duty of confidence continues – as the lawyers put it – after the retainer ends.

Fifth, the right to counsel of choice is not absolute. in other words, you don’t always get the lawyer you want, especially if he or she must be disqualified.

After going though the details of the case, the judgment posed a simple set of questions.

[75]…Would a fully informed reasonable observer seeing these circumstances of successive representation perceive any or all of the following:

(1) a realistic risk or possibility that confidential information secured by the law firm in its retainer by Cunningham would be used in the attempt to discredit Cunningham in Mr. Brissett’s trial?

(2) that Cunningham would likely hold the belief that a cross-examiner from the law firm which previously represented him was in a position to challenge aspects of his testimony based on knowledge originating in prior confidential communications made as a client of the firm?

(3) that Cunningham would be more likely to agree with leading questions and suggestions by a cross-examiner from the law firm that had represented him as a client for fear of disclosure of some confidential information divulged to the law firm when a client?

(4) that a lawyer from the firm which had Cunningham as a prior client might be less effective aggressively cross-examining Cunningham on behalf of Mr. Brissett on account of undue caution relating to the apparent use of confidential information previously obtained from the witness/prior client?

[76]     In my view, a reasonable member of the public would, on the record here, answer these questions affirmatively and, as a result, have significantly less confidence in the administration of criminal justice should counsel from the Robbins, Bernstein firm be permitted to cross-examine their prior client – the concept of undivided loyalty and public faith in the justice system would be significantly tarnished.

Even with what is in the public, it would seem that Ms. AB was in a pretty clear violation of the principles described in Brissett. The fellow she once represented would inevitably be called as a witness. 

Ms. AB would have to cross-examine him and – at that very point – she’d be caught with a conflict of interest, even if only in appearance.  If there was anything more involved that the public doesn’t know, the the conflict could well be more than just a matter of appearance.

Ms. AB can fulminate all she wants.  The black letter of the law would seem to be firmly against. That’s likely why, at an earlier hearing, she didn’t bother contesting the application. Initially she’d talked tough but in the end, she didn’t do anything.

If someone offers to bet on Ms. AB suing the Crown over the whole matter, then take the bet.

She’ll likely back off that one too.

Black letter, and all that.

- srbp -