vendredi 6 mai 2016

Les règles relatives aux conflits d'intérêts s'appliquent également aux membres d'une étude qui ne sont pas juristes

par Karim Renno
Renno Vathilakis Inc.

L'Honorable juge Stephen W. Hamilton vient de rendre une décision de grande importance en matière de conflits d'intérêts dans l'affaire Jennings c. Bazinet (2016 QCCS 2067). Dans celle-ci, le juge Hamilton devait trancher la question de savoir si les règles relatives aux conflits d'intérêts s'appliquent seulement aux avocats au sein d'une étude ou si elles s'appliquent aux membres non-juristes d'une étude.

Dans cette affaire, une des parties défenderesses demande la disqualification de l'étude d'avocats qui représente le Demandeur au motif que le Défendeur en question a rencontré un aviseur d'affaires qui travaille pour ladite étude. La situation est particulière puisque ledit aviseur n'est pas avocat.

Le juge Hamilton doit donc déterminer si les règles relatives aux conflits d'intérêts s'appliquent aux membres d'une étude qui ne sont pas juristes.

Après une analyse soignée, le juge Hamilton en vient à la conclusion qu'il faut répondre à cette question par l'affirmative. Il indique à cet égard que la multi disciplinarité commande une telle application des règles de conflit:
[17]        The rules on conflict of interest in Canada flow from the duties inherent in the lawyer-client relationship. 
[18]        Those rules were developed by the Supreme Court of Canada in MacDonald Estate v. Martin, R. v. Neil, Strother v. 3464920 Canada Inc. and Canadian National Railway Co. v. McKercher LLP. These cases arose in common law jurisdictions. 
[19]        The role of lawyers in Québec is similar to their role in the common law system. As a result, the common law case law is largely applicable in Québec. As mentioned above, the Code is a codification of those cases. 
[20]        The result is that, in principle, the conflict rules in the Code and in the case law apply to lawyers and not to non-lawyers. Moreover, they apply to lawyers and not to law firms. 
[21]        Does this mean that those rules have no application to the non-lawyer employee of a law firm? 
[22]        The Court does not believe so. 
[23]        With respect to the issue of confidential information, the Code and the case law recognize that a non-lawyer employee of a law firm may possess confidential information such that the hiring of that employee by another law firm may give rise to a conflict of interest. 
[24]        Several judgments in the common law provinces deal with the potential conflict resulting from the hiring of a legal assistant. In Hildinger v. Carroll, the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that “in some circumstances a non-professional employee’s change of firms could give rise to a disqualifying conflict of interest”. In that case, the court held that the requirement in MacDonald Estate that the new firm prove that the confidential information would not be used had been satisfied in that the legal assistant did not work for the lawyer in the new firm involved in the case but rather worked for another lawyer on another floor, she had been told not to discuss the case with the lawyer and had not done so, and she had no financial relationship with the lawyer because of the way the new firm was structured. This judgment has been applied by other Canadian courts. 
[25]        The Canadian Bar Association’s 2008 Task Force on Conflicts of Interest concluded that the rules on the transfer of lawyers should apply to legal assistants, but only if they actually worked for the lawyer involved in the matter: 
The validity of the inference depends on the nature of the role and expertise of the staff member. Some staff members are directly and substantively involved in client matters and others are not. Articling students, law clerks, patent and trademark agents, planners and other professionals and paraprofessionals (“professional staff”) often have ongoing substantial involvement in client matters. Legal assistants have ongoing involvement but their involvement is not necessarily substantive. Librarian researchers, translators, process servers, title searchers, electronic document specialists and word processing operators (“professional staff”) undertake specific technical tasks in client matters without ongoing involvement. Other staff members are not really involved in client representation at all. For example, accounting and computer staff (“administrative staff”) may have access to confidential information by virtue of their work but are not involved in client matters.  
The Task Force believes that professional staff should be governed by the same rules which apply to lawyers. Legal assistants should be governed by the same rules but only where they assist lawyers who are actually involved in the adverse matter. Specialist and administrative staff should not be governed by these rules but should be advised when employed of their obligation to observe their confidentiality obligations to clients of their former firms.  
These categorizations should be applied substantively and not formalistically. If, for example, a specialist staff member has direct and substantive involvement in client matters then they should be subject to full protective measures despite their title or designation. 
(Emphasis added) 
[26]        The Code deals with the transfer of non-lawyer employees in Section 62: 
62.  A lawyer who retains the services of a person who worked with another professional must take reasonable measures so that such person does not disclose to him confidential information of the clients of the other professional. 
[27]        The Code also deals more generally with the protection of confidential information by the non-lawyer employees of a law firm, but it does so as a further duty of the lawyer: 
61.  A lawyer must take reasonable measures to ensure that every person who collaborates with him when he engages in his professional activities and, where applicable, the firm within which he engages in such activities, protects confidential information.  
[28]        As a result, the lawyers at Dentons have the obligation to take reasonable measures to ensure the protection of confidential information by Lortie. 
[29]        However, in reviewing the rules applicable to Lortie, the Court finds that it is not appropriate to treat Lortie merely as an employee assisting the lawyers in their professional activities. 
[30]        His page on the Dentons web site describes him as a Senior Business Advisor. The page sets out in detail Lortie’s considerable experience in the business world.  
[31]        The Court can only conclude that Lortie attracts clients to the firm, meets with clients and provides clients with advice. Even if the advice that he gives is presumably more in the nature of business advice than legal advice, the line can be a thin one. 
[32]        As a result, his status within Dentons is closer to that of a senior person in a multidisciplinary firm than an employee of a law firm.  
[33]        In its Guide 2005 de déontologie en milieu multidisciplinaire, the Québec Bar suggests that the multidisciplinary firm must respect the Code: 
Un premier défi de la société multidisciplinaire consiste à exiger, particulièrement en matière de conflits d’intérêts, d’indépendance et de loyauté, que tous ses membres adoptent une conception commune de ces notions lorsque les services d’un avocat sont requis, fondée sur le code de déontologie applicable aux avocats, lequel regroupe des normes particulièrement exigeantes en ces matières. 
Il est donc fondamental que la société prenne les mesures nécessaires pour assurer le respect du Code de déontologie, en tenant compte des risques accrus que peut engendrer l’exercice du droit dans un contexte multidisciplinaire, principalement lorsqu’il est question d’identification et de gestion des conflits d’intérêts réels ou potentiels au sein de la société, de l’indépendance de l’avocat ou de sa loyauté envers son client. 
(Emphasis added) 
[34]        One case in Québec took a narrower view. In 4463251 Canada inc. c. Duo-Regen Technologies Canada inc., the Superior Court concluded that a meeting with a patent agent who was working for a law firm did not prevent the law firm from acting against the client ten years later. Clearly, the ten year delay was an important factor, but the Court also mentions that there was no prior lawyer-client relationship. The Court of Appeal granted leave to appeal from this judgment, but the appeal was dismissed as moot because the respondents changed lawyers before the appeal was heard. 
[35]        In the Court’s view, it is not appropriate to take a narrow view of conflicts of interest because of the public interest and the need to uphold public confidence in the system. 
[36]        For that reason, the Court concludes that the conflict of interest rules applicable to lawyers are generally applicable to someone in Lortie’s position. Dentons holds him out as part of the firm. He clearly holds a senior position within Dentons and he is likely to meet with clients and to receive sensitive business information from clients. The Court concludes that these clients and this information deserve the same protection as the confidential information shared with a lawyer at Dentons in the course of a lawyer-client relationship. A reasonable client would certainly expect that. 
[37]        However, in the application of those rules, it may be appropriate to adjust them to reflect Lortie’s status as a non-lawyer. The Court will come back to this issue throughout its analysis.
Référence : [2016] ABD 182

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