vendredi 1 octobre 2021

Les interrogatoires préalables: en personne ou virtuels?

par Benjamin Dionne
Renno Vathilakis Inc.

Avec la pandémie de COVID-19 qui tend tranquillement disparaître, plusieurs parties optent aujourd’hui pour les interrogatoires préalables en personne. Heureux de la commodité découverte, d’autres préfèrent demeurer en virtuel. Que faire lorsque les parties ne s’entendent pas sur le mode à privilégier?

Aujourd’hui, nous traversons la rivière des Outaouais, gracieuseté d’un ancien collègue de chez Renno Vathilakis (et malheureux fan des Sénateurs d’Ottawa) David Plotkin. Dans la décision Worsoff v. MTCC 1168 (2021 ONSC 6493) le juge Myers devait trancher ce débat.

Dans ce dossier, le juge Myers présente essentiellement un test de pondération des facteurs qui s’apparente fortement à une analyse de la proportionnalité sous les de procédure civile. Au final, le juge Myers privilégie la commodité du virtuel, refusant de reconnaître une primauté intrinsèque aux interrogatoires préalables en personne:
[23] Mr. Marcovitch argues that he has gone to a Toronto Blue Jays game with thousands of fans. Society is opening and he should be able to examine for discovery in person. He adds that in his view it is the “best” method to conduct an examination well and properly. 
[24] Historically court proceedings could only take place in a courtroom or a formal venue. The civil justice process has for decades included examinations for discovery held in person at the office of a “Special Examiner” or an “Official Examiner” or elsewhere by agreement. But seven years ago the Supreme Court of Canada said that the cost of civil proceedings made them inaccessible to the majority of Canadians. The court identified access to justice as the single biggest problem facing the civil justice system. Yet the existing barriers to access to civil justice have not really been addressed despite the highest court in the land calling for a “culture shift” toward modernization, decreased cost, increased efficiency, and overall enhanced proportionality in the civil justice system so many years ago. See: Hryniak v Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7. 
[25] This action is brought under the Simplified Procedure. Examinations for discovery are limited to three hours per side. Credibility is not really in issue during discoveries. If the cost of participation can be decreased for parties and counsel by use of remote methods, access to justice will be improved. 
[26] Arrangements so that litigants do not have to take a full day off work; drive downtown and pay $40 or more for parking; or take the bus for 90 minutes each way; are real savings that promote participation and access to justice. 
[27] If a lawyer can avoid travel and waiting time because she is working at her desk until she signs-on to a virtual examination or hearing, transaction costs are decreased for clients. 
[28] Avoiding paying a lawyer to come to Toronto or to go to another place is also a significant cost savings for a client through virtual proceedings. Lawyers can participate in proceedings in multiple locations on the same day virtually. The increase in efficiency in their practices is substantial. 
[29] There are shortcomings of virtual proceedings as well. Some participants are not used to the technology yet or do not have technological resources that are robust enough to allow for seamless participation in virtual proceedings. There are concerns about the sanctity and decorum of the process. Are witnesses less affected by the solemnity of the process than they might be if they were in a more formal setting? 
[30] Virtual presence is certainly susceptible to abuse. Witnesses can have others present off-screen to coach them for example. Kaushal v. Vasudeva et al., 2021 ONSC 440 (CanLII) 
[31] All of these issues have been canvassed elsewhere. The state of the art is evolving. Some real changes are happening with the potential to actually improve access to civil justice for the public. I do not accept that the pandemic is over so we should all just go back to the way it was. That assumes that the “good old days” were actually good. 
[32] Looking at the factors in subrule 1.08 (6): 
(a) Technology is not an issue for the parties in this case. Counsel are in Toronto and Ottawa. There is lots of bandwidth and available computer resources. If clients have computer issues, they can sit in a boardroom at their lawyer’s offices with a computer. 
(b) Presentation of evidence and argument in open court is not an issue for examination for discovery. If counsel showed that there was a serious credibility issue in the case so that the examination would have a particular emphasis on credibility or a need to control the witness through strong cross-examination techniques, an argument for an in person examination like a trial would be stronger. 
(c) The importance of the evidence is really a subset of (b). That is, this factor recognizes that even at an in person hearing with evidence, less important evidence need not necessarily be heard in person. Examinations for discovery are important generally. But without serious cross-examination on credibility issues, they are generally straightforward and routine affairs. 
(d) The court is not called on to make findings at a discovery. Use of a transcript is all that is available in court after discovery in any event; 
(e) The court does not observe the demeanour of witnesses for discovery. Counsel may. Mr. Marcovitch did not suggest this was an issue for him in this case. 
(f) Mr. Plotkin is in Ottawa although his clients are in Toronto. He does not raise his own location as an issue. But I do. Bringing Mr. Plotkin to Toronto for a Simplified Procedure discovery without good reason to do so is just a wasted expenditure. 
(g) and (h) – As to the balance of convenience and any other relevant matters, Mr. Marcovitch submitted that just because virtual procedures are “easier and more convenient” does not overcome the presumption that examination in person is the best way to examine a witness. Au contraire I say. Efficiency, affordability, and enhanced access to justice trump counsels’ comfort and presumptions every time. With the current pace of change, everyone has to keep learning technology. Counsel and the court alike have a duty of technological competency in my respectful view. Older judges and counsel may be behind younger counsel and the rest of society who use computers with greater regularity and sophistication than we do. But everyone in the civil litigation system in Ontario has had to learn to use the Civil Submissions Online portal and Caselines for example. Technological change affects everyone. Once upon a time, I had to learn how to use a Gestetner (Google it) and then a fax machine. I do not accept that in person is just “better”. It can be in some cases. But if counsel just prefers it because he or she is more comfortable with it, ought we to reject the printer because I liked my Gestetner (and Word Perfect for that matter)? The balance of convenience favours easier and more convenient processes with accompanying cost savings. 
[33] Most examinations for discovery are routine fare. They are often properly delegated to the most junior counsel. Most trials involve very limited use of discovery transcripts. Even if some feel that conducting discovery in person is “better”, the degree of difference in a routine step is of little import in most cases. 
[34] If all agree to attend in person then the examination will be in person. But I do not agree that examinations for discovery need to default to in person attendance because it is “better”. Counsel and parties should agree to the method of attendance that works for them in the circumstances. In each case the court can balance the relevant factors and assess the balance of convenience. 
[35] It’s now 2021. Virtual proceedings have proven to be one of the first significant enhancements in access to justice since Hryniak was decided in 2014. I am not discussing trials (and the savings available by expert witnesses testifying remotely) or even cross-examination on an affidavit out of court under subrule 34.01 (c) for that matter. But I see no good reason to put the defendants to any increased risk of COVID-19 or to bring their lawyer to Toronto for one side’s Simplified Procedure examinations for discovery in this case. 
Toutes choses étant égales par ailleurs, je ne vois pas pourquoi cette analyse ne s’appliquerait pas devant les tribunaux québécois. Le virtuel deviendra la norme, à moins d’un facteur particulier qui demande un interrogatoire préalable en personne. Le juge Myers en soulève deux: un manque particulier d’accès à la technologie et un témoin qui demanderait un contre-interrogatoire musclé.

Référence : [2021] ABD 391

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