The Latest Word From The Supreme Court Of Canada On Conflicts Of Interest: Canadian National Railway Co. V. Mckercher LLP

by Dentons
Contact

The Supreme Court of Canada shed a bit more light on the “bright line rule” for determining when a conflict exists when a law firm represents clients whose interests are adverse in the recent decision of Canadian National Railway Co. v. McKercher LLP, 2013 SCC 39. The Court also provided further clarification regarding a law firm’s duty of loyalty to its clients and guidance for determining the appropriate remedy where this duty is breached.

In McKercher, Gordon Wallace hired McKercher LLP to act for him as the representative plaintiff in a proposed $1.75 billion class action against Canadian National Railway (CN) and others for allegedly overcharging western farmers to transport grain. At the time McKercher was retained by Mr. Wallace, the firm was acting for CN on several unrelated matters. McKercher did not tell CN in advance that it was entering into a retainer with Mr. Wallace, and after entering into this new retainer, the firm withdrew as counsel on some of CN’s matters. CN learned that McKercher was acting for Mr. Wallace in the proposed class action when it received a copy of the Statement of Claim, at which point CN terminated its relationship with McKercher and applied to disqualify the firm from representing Mr. Wallace. The Court of Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan ruled in CN’s favour and disqualified McKercher from acting in the class action. However, the Court of Appeal overturned the disqualification and allowed McKercher to continue acting for Mr. Wallace, and CN appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court allowed CN’s appeal, finding that McKercher breached its duty of loyalty owed to CN by breaching its duties (1) to avoid conflicts of interest, (2) of candour, and (3) of commitment to its client’s cause, which the Court described as the three salient aspects of the duty of loyalty.

In considering whether a conflict of interest existed, the Supreme Court applied the bright-line rule and found that McKercher clearly crossed the bright line by accepting the retainer with Mr. Wallace without CN’s consent. The Court upheld a strict interpretation of the rule, which stipulates that a law firm cannot concurrently represent clients whose interests are adverse without first obtaining their consent, even if the matters are unrelated.

Despite expressly rejecting arguments for a less strict interpretation of the rule, the Supreme Court pointed out that the scope of the rule is not unlimited. The Court clarified that the bright-line rule:

  1. only applies where the clients’ immediate interests are directly adverse in the legal matters the firm is representing them on;
  2. only applies to legal interests, not to commercial or strategic interests;
  3. cannot be used tactically; and
  4. does not apply where it would be unreasonable for a client to expect that the firm would not act against it in an unrelated matter (for example, with professional litigants, whose consent can be inferred when the conflicting matters are unrelated and there is no risk of improper use of confidential information).

When the bright-line rule does not apply, the Court endorsed a more contextual approach and stated that the test for determining whether a conflict of interest exists is whether there is a substantial risk that the lawyer’s representation of the client would be materially or adversely affected.

The Supreme Court observed that disqualification is normally the appropriate remedy for a breach of the bright-line rule in order to:

  1. avoid misuse of confidential information;
  2. avoid impaired representation; and
  3. maintain confidence in the administration of justice.

However, the Supreme Court noted that disqualification may not always be warranted where there is no risk of misuse of confidential information or prejudice to the complaining party. In cases where disqualification is sought only to maintain confidence in the justice system, courts must consider factors that may weigh against disqualification, including:

  • conduct that could disentitle the complaining party from seeking disqualification (such as delay in applying for disqualification);
  • significant prejudice to the non-complaining client in retaining its choice of, or any, counsel;
  • a law firm’s having accepted the conflicting matter in good faith and with the belief that the concurrent representation would not breach the bright-line rule.

The Court found that McKercher did not have confidential information that could prejudice CN in the class action. Therefore, the only relevant ground for disqualification in this case is to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice, which requires consideration of the above factors. As a result, the McKercher case has been returned to the Court of Queen’s Bench to determine the appropriate remedy for CN in light of the Supreme Court’s reasons.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Dentons | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Dentons
Contact
more
less

Dentons on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.