C, a criminal defence lawyer employed by Yukon Legal Aid, represented an accused charged with sexual offences against a young child. Prior to the preliminary inquiry, Legal Aid informed the accused that failure to update his financial information would result in the suspension of his legal aid funding. The accused failed to respond to the request and Legal Aid informed him that C was no longer authorized to represent him. C brought an application to the Territorial Court of Yukon to withdraw as counsel of record solely because of the suspended funding. However, C indicated that she was willing to represent the accused if funding were reinstated. The Territorial Court refused her application. The Supreme Court of the Yukon Territory dismissed C's application for an order in the nature of certiorari seeking to quash the Territorial Court's order, holding that the Territorial Court did not exceed its jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal allowed C's appeal on the basis that the Territorial Court had no discretion to refuse C's application to withdraw.
The Supreme Court of Canada held (unanimously) allowed the appeal.
Justice Rothstein wrote as follows:
"What is the role of a court when defence counsel, in a criminal matter, wishes to withdraw because of non-payment of legal fees? Does a court have the authority to require counsel to continue to represent the accused? In my opinion, a court does have this authority, though it must be exercised sparingly, and only when necessary to prevent serious harm to the administration of justice.
An accused has an unfettered right to discharge his or her legal counsel at any time and for any reason. A court may not interfere with this decision and cannot force counsel upon an unwilling accused. Counsel, on the other hand, does not have an unfettered right to withdraw. The fiduciary nature of the solicitor-client relationship means that counsel is constrained in his or her ability to withdraw from a case once he or she has chosen to represent an accused...This appeal raises the issue of whether a court's jurisdiction to control its own process imposes a further constraint on counsel's ability to withdraw.
I conclude that a court does have the authority to refuse criminal defence counsel's request to withdraw for non-payment of legal fees. Applications regarding withdrawal or removal of counsel, whether for non-payment of fees, conflict of interest or otherwise, are the types of matters that fall within the necessarily implied authority of a court to control the conduct of legal proceedings before it.
The more contentious issue in this appeal is whether a criminal court may exercise its inherent or necessarily implied jurisdiction to control its own process by overseeing lawyer withdrawal.
The reasons in favour of courts exercising this jurisdiction are numerous. An accused, who becomes unable to pay his lawyer, may be prejudiced if he is abandoned by counsel in the midst of criminal proceedings. Proceedings may need to be adjourned to allow the accused to obtain new counsel. This delay may prejudice the accused, who is stigmatized by the unresolved criminal charges and who may be in custody awaiting trial. It may also prejudice the Crown's case. Additional delay also affects complainants, witnesses and jurors involved in the matter, and society's interest in the expedient administration of justice. Where these types of interests are engaged, they may outweigh counsel's interest in withdrawing from a matter in which he or she is not being paid.
Ordering counsel to work for free is not a decision that should be made lightly. Though criminal defence counsel may be in the best position to assess the financial risk in taking on a client, only in the most serious circumstances should counsel alone be required to bear this financial burden. In general, access to justice should not fall solely on the shoulders of the criminal defence bar and, in particular, legal aid lawyers. Refusing to allow counsel to withdraw should truly be a remedy of last resort and should only be relied upon where it is necessary to prevent serious harm to the administration of justice.
The court's exercise of discretion to decide counsel's application for withdrawal should be guided by the following principles.
If counsel seeks to withdraw far enough in advance of any scheduled proceedings and an adjournment will not be necessary, then the court should allow the withdrawal. In this situation, there is no need for the court to enquire into counsel's reasons for seeking to withdraw or require counsel to continue to act.
Assuming that timing is an issue, the court is entitled to enquire further. Counsel may reveal that he or she seeks to withdraw for ethical reasons, non-payment of fees, or another specific reason (e.g. workload of counsel) if solicitor-client privilege is not engaged. Counsel seeking to withdraw for ethical reasons means that an issue has arisen in the solicitor-client relationship where it is now impossible for counsel to continue in good conscience to represent the accused. Counsel may cite "ethical reasons" as the reason for withdrawal if, for example, the accused is requesting that counsel act in violation of his or her professional obligations...If the real reason for withdrawal is non-payment of legal fees, then counsel cannot represent to the court that he or she seeks to withdraw for "ethical reasons". However, in either the case of ethical reasons or non-payment of fees, the court must accept counsel's answer at face value and not enquire further so as to avoid trenching on potential issues of solicitor-client privilege.
If withdrawal is sought for an ethical reason, then the court must grant withdrawal. Where an ethical issue has arisen in the relationship, counsel may be required to withdraw in order to comply with his or her professional obligations. It would be inappropriate for a court to require counsel to continue to act when to do so would put him or her in violation of professional responsibilities.
If withdrawal is sought because of non-payment of legal fees, the court may exercise its discretion to refuse counsel's request. The court's order refusing counsel's request to withdraw may be enforced by the court's contempt power. In exercising its discretion on the withdrawal request, the court should consider the following non-exhaustive list of factors:
a) whether it is feasible for the accused to represent himself or herself;
b) other means of obtaining representation;
c) impact on the accused from delay in proceedings, particularly if the accused is in custody;
d) conduct of counsel, e.g. if counsel gave reasonable notice to the accused to allow the accused to seek other means of representation, or if counsel sought leave of the court to withdraw at the earliest possible time;
e) impact on the Crown and any co-accused;
f) impact on complainants, witnesses and jurors;
g) fairness to defence counsel, including consideration of the expected length and complexity of the proceedings; and
h) the history of the proceedings, e.g. if the accused has changed lawyers repeatedly.
As these factors are all independent of the solicitor-client relationship, there is no risk of violating solicitor-client privilege when engaging in this analysis. On the basis of these factors, the court must determine whether allowing withdrawal would cause serious harm to the administration of justice. If the answer is yes, withdrawal may be refused."