Removal or Withdrawal of Counsel from the Record for Ethical Reasons or Non-Payment of Fees, cases from 2018

Published On: Jan 31,2018

The Ontario Court of Appeal has recently ruled on the counsel’s ability to be withdrawn on counsel of record.  The starting point for any analysis stems from the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Regina v. Cunningham, [2010] 1 SCR 331, 2010 SCC 10 (CanLII) where the Court laid out the following principles to guide the Courts when it hears applications by accused persons and counsel to be withdrawn as counsel of record:  

[47] If counsel seeks to withdraw far enough in advance of any scheduled proceedings and an adjournment will not be necessary, then the court should allow the withdrawal.  In this situation, there is no need for the court to enquire into counsel’s reasons for seeking to withdraw or require counsel to continue to act.

 [48] Assuming that timing is an issue, the court is entitled to enquire further.  Counsel may reveal that he or she seeks to withdraw for ethical reasons, non-payment of fees, or another specific reason (e.g. workload of counsel) if solicitor-client privilege is not engaged.  Counsel seeking to withdraw for ethical reasons means that an issue has arisen in the solicitor-client relationship where it is now impossible for counsel to continue in good conscience to represent the accused.  Counsel may cite “ethical reasons” as the reason for withdrawal if, for example, the accused is requesting that counsel act in violation of his or her professional obligations (see, e.g., Law Society of Upper Canada, r. 2.09(7)(b), (d); Law Society of Alberta, c. 14, r. 2; Law Society of British Columbia, c. 10, r. 1), or if the accused refuses to accept counsel’s advice on an important trial issue (see, e.g., Law Society of Upper Canada, r. 2.09(2); Law Society of Alberta, c. 14, r. 1; Law Society of British Columbia, c. 10, r. 2).  If the real reason for withdrawal is non-payment of legal fees, then counsel cannot represent to the court that he or she seeks to withdraw for “ethical reasons”.  However, in either the case of ethical reasons or non-payment of fees, the court must accept counsel’s answer at face value and not enquire further so as to avoid trenching on potential issues of solicitor-client privilege.

[49] If withdrawal is sought for an ethical reason, then the court must grant withdrawal (see C. (D.D.), at p. 328, and Deschamps, at para. 23).  Where an ethical issue has arisen in the relationship, counsel may be required to withdraw in order to comply with his or her professional obligations.  It would be inappropriate for a court to require counsel to continue to act when to do so would put him or her in violation of professional responsibilities.

 [50] If withdrawal is sought because of  non-payment of legal fees,  the court may exercise its discretion to refuse counsel’s request.  The court’s order refusing counsel’s request to withdraw may be enforced by the court’s contempt power (C. (D.D.), at p. 327).  In exercising its discretion on the withdrawal request, the court should consider the following non-exhaustive list of factors:

  1. whether it is feasible for the accused to represent himself or herself;
  2. other means of obtaining representation;
  3. impact on the accused from delay in proceedings, particularly if the accused is in custody;
  4. conduct of counsel, e.g. if counsel gave reasonable notice to the accused to allow the accused to seek other means of representation, or if counsel sought leave of the court to withdraw at the earliest possible time;
  5. impact on the Crown and any co‑accused;
  6. impact on complainants, witnesses and jurors;
  7. fairness to defence counsel, including consideration of the expected length and complexity of the proceedings;
  8. the history of the proceedings, e.g. if the accused has changed lawyers repeatedly.
  As these factors are all independent of the solicitor-client relationship, there is no risk of violating solicitor-client privilege when engaging in this analysis.  On the basis of these factors, the court must determine whether allowing withdrawal would cause serious harm to the administration of justice.  If the answer is yes, withdrawal may be refused.
In Regina v. Short, 2018 ONCA 1, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for first degree murder where the trial judge refused to let defence counsel off the record six (6) prior to the commencement of the trial proper.   Defence counsel made representations to the presiding judge that indicating that there was a “loss of confidence” between the accused person and himself.  That loss of confidence was such that counsel could not discharge his duties under the Law Society Rules because he could not ethically proceed.  The second ground cited by the defence lawyer was that he was not being paid by the client.  Finally, the defence counsel argued that “Counsel took immediate steps following such a loss of confidence in the relationship to prepare and file the Notice of Application.”  Trial counsel made representations to the trial judge in which he briefly outlined the history of his relationship with the appellant; again, he indicated he had not been paid and referred to the possibility of a lawsuit for payment of the funds owed to him. Counsel also advised the trial judge that because of the non-payment, he had been unable to do things that should have been done in preparation for the second trial.     The trial court considered these explanations but further queried defence counsel on the merits of the representations made and the materials filed, which perciepirated the following response by the Defence Lawyer:    

…I am telling Your Honour that there are issues that have arisen that result in a loss of confidence between Mr. Short and I…

…[A]nd I can tell you as an officer of the court, this is not me putting on top of a non-payment of fees, a paragraph that says there’s a loss of confidence just to get an easy way out. This is probably the most difficult decision I have done. In this particular case I have, without disclosing anything, done everything I can to move this case forward. After the second trial I wiped much of my calendar clean to get this second trial as quick as possible. Obviously, there were communications between my client and I that allowed me to make the decision to go forward, financially and for another, another, another, abound of reasons. But I am telling the [sic] today, is that having no funds, and not being able to disclose to you the communications between the client and I, that I cannot represent Mr. Short going forward. [Emphasis added.]

    It is also critical to note that the trial Court did not query the accused person because it was concerned about the possibility that confidential information would be related to the Court that would not have otherwise be the case if the application had not been made. The Crown Prosecutor objected to the application made by defence counsel.  Oddly, the Crown advised the Court that only payment issues were cited to the preclusion of ethical issues, suggesting that the defence counsel was camouflaging the true nature and merits of the application.  In accepting the Crown’s argument and rejecting defence counsel’s application to be removed as counsel of record, it stated:   Given the weight and tenor of the balance of the affidavit dwelling on financial issues, I am forced to conclude that the reference to ethics in the adverb “ethically” has no basis in evidence. I am persuaded that [trial counsel’s] difficulties relate to payment of his accounts and not to an ethical dilemma.[Emphasis added.]  
The Court of Appeal in Ontario held the trial judge was obligated to accept the defence counsel’s representations (as stated above) that the solicitor-client relationship had broken down; and should have accepted his application to be removed as counsel of record.  The failure to do so culminated in an error that rendered the trial unfair and created a miscarriage of justice. What is more, the trial court also erred by failing to hear from the accused as to whether he wanted to continue with the lawyer.
If you require the assistance of a defence lawyer, call J.S. Patel at 403-585-1960. However, please note that it is not our practice to discuss matters with potential clients when you currently have a lawyer.