A lawyer who aggressively defended a client embroiled in a billion-dollar mining scandal did not violate the rules of courtroom civility when he accused the prosecutor in the case of misconduct, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday.The split decision in favour of Joe Groia marked the culmination of a lengthy legal battle that pitted the Toronto securities lawyer against the Law Society of Ontario, the organization that regulates attorneys in the province.Years after Groia successfully defended Bre-X vice-president John Felderhof, the law society scrutinized his courtroom conduct in the case and found he had breached civility rules.Groia appealed in part on the grounds that his frequent tussles with prosecutors were rooted in a mistaken understanding of a legal matter as well as the need to advocate for his client. Ontario’s top court rejected his arguments, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.The majority of judges on Canada’s highest court sided with Groia, whose lawyer lauded the decision.“Joe lost at every level, but if you’re only going to win once, the Supreme Court of Canada is the place to win,” Groia’s lawyer Earl Cherniak said of the ruling.The law society focused attention on Groia long after the acrimonious trial that ultimately concluded in an acquittal for Felderhof, the only Bre-X executive to face charges in the case. Investors lost billions when Canadian-based Bre-X collapsed in 1997 after claims of an Indonesian gold find turned out to be bogus.By all accounts, including the Supreme Court decision, the trial featured several tense exchanges between Groia and opposing lawyers and numerous allegations that prosecutors were abusing process.The top court ruling described the trial as having “a toxicity that manifested itself in the form of personal attacks, sarcastic outbursts and allegations of professional impropriety” that ground the proceedings to “a near standstill.”The law society, finding Groia had breached civility rules, at one point suspended him for two months and ordered him to pay $247,000 in costs — later reduced to one month suspension and $200,000.Cherniak said that many of Groia’s attacks were based on a sincere misunderstanding of legal rules regarding when prosecutors were obliged to introduce evidence in a trial.Six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court supported that view and said Groia could not be found guilty of incivility because he was making his arguments in good faith.“Finding a lawyer guilty of professional misconduct on the basis of incivility for making an abuse of process argument that is based on a sincerely held but mistaken legal position discourages lawyers from raising these allegations, frustrating the duty of resolute advocacy and the client’s right to make full answer and defence,” wrote one of the judges who ruled in Groia’s favour.The majority of judges found that while the law society has reasonable and context-specific standards for evaluating whether or not a lawyer breached civility rules, it did not apply them properly in this case.The law society did not comment on the ruling as it related to Groia specifically, but did express some satisfaction with the court’s characterization of the role it plays in upholding standards of courtroom conduct.“The law society welcomes the Supreme Court’s recognition of the importance of civility in the courts and its decision to endorse the Law Society Tribunal Appeal Panel’s test for incivility in court,” it said in a statement. “This decision upholds the law society’s jurisdiction to regulate the legal professions’ conduct in court.”Nonetheless, three Supreme Court justices expressed concern that the ruling may undermine the oversight body.The dissenting justices expressed concern that the majority ruling could “immunize erroneous allegations from sanction by the law society, validate improper conduct and threaten to undermine the administration of justice.”The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which intervened in the case, took a more positive view of the decision, calling it “a good result for freedom of speech.”“The majority of the Supreme Court … recognized the central importance of allowing lawyers the freedom to express themselves, particularly in defence of their clients’ rights,” the association said in a statement. “It also noted that incivility prosecutions should target behaviour that has a negative impact on the administration of justice or the fairness of a particular proceeding.”Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Earl Cherniak’s last name.
VICTORIA – British Columbia’s agriculture minister says critical lessons learned from last year’s wildfires that had ranchers and producers suffering devastating losses will help save animals during another season that could force more people from their properties.Lana Popham said Wednesday the province’s premises identification program, which was meant to trace cattle back to an operation during a disease outbreak, allowed animals to be rescued last year after evacuation orders were issued.“As the fires increased last summer and this program seemed to have so much value we saw those numbers increase significantly,” she said of more farmers and ranchers registering for the program. “That’s allowing us to get into areas that have been identified as heavy agricultural, livestock areas and be able to assess a situation and move those animals out as needed.”In some cases, grazing cattle remained safe in certain areas after ranchers have left due to encroaching fires, Popham said, adding 35,000 livestock were on the loose last year at the height of the worst wildfire conditions.“This program allows them to re-enter into evacuation zones and tend to their livestock so it’s extremely important for people to be registered for this program and I think over the last two years, especially, that message has hit home.”So far this season, 13,000 livestock, mostly cattle but also sheep, horses and pigs, have been in areas affected by evacuation orders and alerts, Popham said, adding ministry staff are working with the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association to co-ordinate alternate grazing sites, organizing emergency feeds and helping with the relocation of animals.“We won’t often know if they’ve been lost until they don’t come home later in the fall,” Popham said. “I have heard reports of cattle that have been burned, but no numbers on that yet.”Williams Lake is one of the hardest-hit areas, Popham said.“The emotional toll that these farmers and ranchers are feeling is tremendous. And we saw this last year. You see some of the strongest farmers you know break down when they realize some of their animals aren’t coming home.”After the 2017 wildfires, the federal government provided $20 million in funding to help farmers and ranchers, but Popham said her ministry has not made any requests for financial help so far this year as it awaits assessments on areas that weren’t affected last year.The wildfires prompted the province to declare a state of emergency last week, and it is expected to be in place until next week but may be extended if necessary.Ryan Turcott, a fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said 563 fires were burning in the province, with 16 new ones starting on Tuesday.The Shovel Lake fire, west of Prince George, is one of the largest, at more than 868-square-kilometres, and has a crew of 236 battling it, though thick smoke was the biggest challenge because visibility problems prevented the use of aircraft, Turcott said.He said some precipitation is forecast for next week in parts of the province but only prolonged rainfall will make a difference in combating the fires.Residents of the tiny British Columbia community of Lower Post, near the Yukon boundary, were the latest to be forced from their homes on Wednesday.About 80 people received evacuation notices as the BC Wildfire Service warned a 40-square-kilometre blaze to the south had moved within five kilometres of the village and also threatened the enclave of Skooks Landing.DriveBC, the B.C. government’s online service for travellers, says nearby wildfires had closed Highway 97, the Alaska Highway, from the Yukon boundary to Coal River, southeast of Lower Post.Evacuees were being directed to the recreation centre in Watson Lake, Yukon, about 20 kilometres away.Officials have said roughly 3,000 B.C. residents were under evacuation orders due to wildfires and thousands more on alert as hundreds of blazes char timber and bush in all areas of the province.