Why Civil Litigators Have to Keep Current on Criminal Law

In the privacy of mediation rooms, I often listen to assertions made by counsel about certain facts, such as soft-tissue injuries suffered in a car crash, and then I ask: How are you going to prove that?

I may as well have asked a question about Heidegger’s thoughts on the revelation of reality.  The lack, most of the time, of a satisfactory answer to my question comes from the apocryphal nature of the rules of civil evidence in Canada, and from the dearth of actual trial experience among litigators called to the bar in the last 15 years.

(la version française suit)

So much of the practice of civil litigation is now not about evidence but information.  An entire industry called E-Discovery has grown in large firms which has little to do with litigation as it does about searching for dots in complicated constellations of (hoped for) exceptions to the hearsay rule.  Parties in large commercial cases are tempted to settle after shuddering at the size of the bill for a round of E-Discovery.  Very few of the lawyers involved in such matters actually have much sense of what the case is about.  The holy grail is server full of coded productions, whether or not any of it might end up being used by the court as proof of fact or legal theory.

In less lofty circles, I often hear counsel say things like: “I’d sooner believe the police officer’s version of the accident than your client’s.”  In one recent case, I had to point out that the police officer did not speak to the accident victim because (a) he did not speak Punjabi and (b) the victim was taken away in an ambulance and was in no fit state to provide a statement.  Apart from the drawing showing where the cars ended up in the intersection, the police officer’s version of how the accident occurred was entirely based on flawed hearsay and could not be received in evidence at trial.  The victim’s testimony, aided by an interpreter, would be admissible as direct eye-witness testimony.

The simple truth is that you cannot count on persuading another lawyer of the validity of a factual assertion if you cannot refer to the evidence, and demonstrate how it will be adduced at trial.

In an age when few rulings of evidence in civil matters get published, it is important for civil litigators to glance, at least, at the digests of criminal cases.  In criminal law, procedures such as preliminary hearings are real battlegrounds where courts decide whether there is enough admissible evidence to make out a case for the prosecution.  Some of the case law is particular to criminal law, such as the law regarding the application of Charter remedies to evidence obtained from police searches.  Nevertheless, the law of evidence is a shared domain between civil and criminal law.  Crown and defence counsel focus every day on the admissibility and weight of each piece of evidence. If only civil litigators learned some of that disciplined approach to proof in the litigation process.

~   ~  ~

Dans l’intimité des salles de médiation, j’entend souvent des affirmations faites par les avocats à propos de certains faits, puis je leur demande: Comment allez-vous le prouver?

J’aurais pu aussi bien avoir posé une question au sujet des pensées de Heidegger sur la révélation de la réalité.  Le manque, la plupart du temps, d’une réponse satisfaisante à ma question découle de la nature apocryphe des règles de la preuve civile au Canada, et à partir du manque d’expérience parmi les ‘jeunes’ avocats.

Une grande partie de la pratique du contentieux civil est maintenant pas de preuve, mais l’information.  Mais les données n’égalent pas la preuve. Toute une industrie appelée E-Discovery s’est développée dans les grands cabinets. Très peu d’avocats impliqués dans ce domaine savent vraiment le vrai enjeu dans ces dossiers.

Dans les milieux moins élevés, j’entends souvent dire des choses comme: « Je préférerais croire la version de l’agent de police, et non pas la version de votre client. » La plupart du temps, les policiers n’ont rien vu, et leur témoignage serait rejeté.  Entre la preuve et rien, il n’existe aucun conflit.

Il est fort évident que vous ne pouvez pas convaincre un autre avocat de la validité d’une affirmation de fait, si vous ne pouvez pas identifier la preuve, et de montrer comment elle sera présentée devant le jury.

Dans une époque où très peu d’arrêts de la loi de la preuve en matière civile se font publier, il est important que les avocats civils suivent les recueils de la jurisprudence d’affaires pénales. En droit pénal, les procédures telles que les audiences préliminaires sont de véritables champs de bataille où les tribunaux décident s’il y a suffisamment d’éléments de la preuve admissibles pour établir une preuve de la poursuite. Le droit de la preuve est un domaine partagé entre le droit civil et pénal.  Donc, dis-je: faîtes attention au droit pénal!


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  1. Thanks for this, Lee. I have found in working on electronic evidence issues over the past 20 years (not e-discovery in particular) that civil evidence cases are hard to come by, but the applicability of criminal rules of evidence is not always obvious. More reflection about the overlap and the distinction would be very helpful.

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