AuthorDavid Layton; Michel Proulx
The outcome of a criminal case usu ally depends on the testimony of
witnesses. A central role for counsel thus lies in determin ing whether
witnesse s are available to assist the client’s case, in prepari ng witnesses
to testify and eliciting their evidence in court, and in deciding whether
and how to challenge the reliabilit y of witnesses called by the opposing
party. Ethical principles gu ide counsel at all stages of the se interactions
with witnes ses. We have already examined t he interplay of these prin-
ciples in a number of areas, such as the problem of client perjur y and
the cross-examination of a witness k nown by the lawyer to be tr uth-
ful.1 In this chapter, the discussion continues with the focus predomin-
antly, though not entirely, on counsel’s out-of-court interactions with
witnesses and potential witnesses. In each area reviewed, counsel’s
obligation to advance resolutely the client’s best interests plays a sub-
stantial role in conceptuali zing what constitutes ethica l conduct. Yet
the obligation to promote the client’s best interests is often limited by a
concomitant duty to avoid conduct that creates an unacceptable risk of
misleading the court or treating a witness un fairly.
1 See Chapter 7 and Ch apter 1, Section K(1).
Witnesses 375
Canadian eth ical codes describe a competent law yer as one who ap-
plies relevant knowledge, skills, and attr ibutes in a manner appropriate
to each matter including, among other thi ngs, investigating the facts.2
They also state that “unless the client instructs otherwise, the law yer
should investigate the matter in suff‌icient detail to be able to express
an opinion rather than mere comments w ith many qualif‌icat ions.”3 In
the same vein, the ABA Defense Standards oblige defence counsel to
“conduct a prompt investigation of the circumstances of the case and
explore all avenues leading to facts relevant to the merits.”4
Defence counsel’s duty of competence thus includes the obligation
to take reasonable steps to invest igate whether an individual has in for-
mation that might assi st in advancing the client’s case at tri al. Timely
action will often be necess ary to ensure th at the best possible informa-
tion can be obtained, for example by interviewing a witness promptly
about an ordinary occur rence that might otherwi se soon be forgotten
or imperfectly remembered.5 An unreasonable failure to inter view a
witness soon enough, or at all, may amount to incompetence. Where
the result is real prejudice to the client at trial, counsel’s oversight will
constitute ineffective assistance so as to require that a conviction be
overturned and a new tr ial ordered.6
Yet counsel need not interview everyone who might conceivably
have information relevant to the ca se. He must exercise sound pro-
fessional judgment, based on all of the circumstances, to determ ine
whether there is a reasonable possibility the information wi ll assist the
2 Alta, Sask r 2.01(1)(b); BC, Man, Ont, NS, NL r 3.1-1(b). See also Chapt er 3, Sec-
tion K(1).
3 Alta, Sask r 2.01(2) (commentar y); BC, Man, Ont, NS, NL r 3.1-2, commentary 8.
4 ABA Defense St andard 4-4.1(a).
5 See G Arthur Ma rtin, “Preparation for Trial” in L aw Society of Upper Canada ,
Defending a Criminal Case (Toronto: Richard D e Boo Ltd, 1969) 221 at 230–32.
6 See, for example, R v Delisle (1999), 133 CCC (3d) 541 at 555–58 [paras 47–55
and 60] (Que CA) [Delisle], R v McKellar (1994), 34 CR (4th) 28 (Ont CA);
R v Michelin, [1999] OJ No 848 at paras 35–38 and 42 (Gen Div); R v Jim, 2003
BCCA 411 at paras 8–9 and 13; R v Giroux , [2004] OJ No 2054 at paras 1–2 (CA)
[Giroux]; R v McK oy, 2011 ONCA 41 at paras 4–5; R v Fraser, 2011 NSCA 70 at
paras 86 –93 and 97–104 [Fraser]. See al so Dale Ives, “Failure to Interv iew a
Potential Defence Wit ness as the Basis for an Ine ffective Assistance of C ounsel
Claim” (2008) 53 Crim LQ 49 0.
client’s defence.7 Factors to consider in deciding whether to seek out
and interview a potential witness include the degree of likelihood that
the witness ex ists and can be located, whether t he witness’s informa-
tion relates to a viable defence, the extent to which the information
advances that defence and is reli able, whether the witness i s likely to be
co-operative, and any instructions received from the client.8
Recommendation: Counsel should generally ascertain whether the
client knows of anyone who might have information that could be rel-
evant to the case. It is usua lly advisable to interview those individuals
who have personally witnessed material events,9 although the need to
do so will var y depending on the extent to which their evidence may
assist the defence and the contents of any inter view materials produced
by police and included in the disclosure.
Defence lawyers have f‌inite res ources with which to conduct inves-
tigations, especia lly where the client is of modest means or relies on
legal aid, and a paucity of resources can pre sent serious challenges.10
Counsel’s ethical duties cannot be dictated simply by reference to the
amount of fund ing available.11 Yet she cannot be expected persona lly to
f‌inance expensive investigations into whether a witness exists and has
information helpful to the defence.12
A lawyer is free to contact any p otential witnes s in an attempt to obtain
information materia l to the client’s case, regardless of whether the witness
7 In the context of inef fective assistance of coun sel claims, the vie w that only
reason able steps to i nvestigate a potential wit ness need be taken is endor sed in
Strickland v Washington, 46 6 US 668 at 691 (1984); R v White (1997), 114 CCC
(3d) 225 at 254 [para 94] (Ont CA) [White]; Giroux, ab ove note 6 at para 1.
8 Similar factors are ment ioned in White, above note 7 at 254 [para 94]; R v RW
(2006), 207 CCC (3d) 137 at paras 55–58 and 76 (Ont CA), leave to appeal to
SCC refused, [2007] SCCA No 337. The issue of whether counsel mu st follow a
client’s instructions, including those relating to interviewing and calling wit-
nesses, i s canvassed in Chapter 3, Se ction C.
9 See R v Strauss (1995), 100 CCC (3d) 303 at paras 48 and 56 (BCCA); White,
above note 7 at 254 [para 93].
10 See ABA Model Rule 4 -4.1(a), comment “The Importance of P rompt Investigation.”
11 See, for example, R v LCB (1996), 104 CCC (3d) 353 at 370–71 and 374 [paras
64–67 a nd 77] (Ont CA) [LCB]: low legal aid rates no e xcuse for failing to meet
client until d ay of trial.
12 Frase r, above note 6 at 80; R v Aulakh, 2012 BCCA 340 at para 89.

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