Supreme Court of Canada Affirms That State Cannot Undermine Duty of Loyalty to Client

The Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC“) in Canada (Attorney General) v. Federation of Law Societies of Canada, 2015 SCC 7, has affirmed that some provisions of Canada’s anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing duties unreasonably impedes the lawyer’s duties to both keep their clients’ confidences and to act with the commitment to serving and protecting their clients’ legitimate interests.  In doing so, the SCC has held that it should be recognized as a principle of fundamental justice that the state cannot impose duties on lawyers that undermine their duty of commitment to their clients’ causes.

The SCC’s decision contained the following key passages:

The duty of lawyers to avoid conflicting interests is at the heart of both the general legal framework defining the fiduciary duties of lawyers to their clients and of the ethical principles governing lawyers’ professional conduct. This duty aims to avoid two types of risks of harm to clients: the risk of misuse of confidential information and the risk of impairment of the lawyer’s representation of the client (see, e.g., Canadian National Railway Co. v. McKercher LLP, 2013 SCC 39, [2013] 2 S.C.R. 649, at para. 23).

The Court has recognized that aspects of these fiduciary and ethical duties have a constitutional dimension. I have already discussed at length one important example. The centrality to the administration of justice of preventing misuse of the client’s confidential information, reflected in solicitor-client privilege, led the Court to conclude that the privilege required constitutional protection in the context of law office searches and seizures: see Lavallee. Solicitor-client privilege is “essential to the effective operation of the legal system”: R. v. Gruenke, [1991] 3 S.C.R. 263, at p. 289. As Major J. put it in R. v. McClure, 2001 SCC 14, [2001] 1 S.C.R. 445, at para. 31: “The important relationship between a client and his or her lawyer stretches beyond the parties and is integral to the workings of the legal system itself” (emphasis added).

The question now is whether another central dimension of the solicitor-client relationship — the lawyer’s duty of commitment to the client’s cause — also requires some measure of constitutional protection against government intrusion. In my view it does, for many of the same reasons that support constitutional protection for solicitor-client privilege. “The law is a complex web of interests, relationships and rules. The integrity of the administration of justice depends upon the unique role of the solicitor who provides legal advice to clients within this complex system”: McClure, at para. 2. These words, written in the context of solicitor-client privilege, are equally apt to describe the centrality to the administration of justice of the lawyer’s duty of commitment to the client’s cause. A client must be able to place “unrestricted and unbounded confidence” in his or her lawyer; that confidence which is at the core of the solicitor-client relationship is a part of the legal system itself, not merely ancillary to it: Smith v. Jones, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 455, at para. 45, citing with approval, Anderson v. Bank of British Columbia (1876), 2 Ch. D. 644 (C.A.); McClure. The lawyer’s duty of commitment to the client’s cause, along with the protection of the client’s confidences, is central to the lawyer’s role in the administration of justice.

We should, in my view, recognize as a principle of fundamental justice that the state cannot impose duties on lawyers that undermine their duty of commitment to their clients’ causes. Subject to justification being established, it follows that the state cannot deprive someone of life, liberty or security of the person otherwise than in accordance with this principle.


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