There is an expectation that lawyers conduct themselves in a professional, courteous and civil manner. The practice of criminal law is no different from any other area of law. Criminal defence lawyers and Crown Attorneys have a duty to act in a professional manner whether they are interacting with each other, their clients, witnesses, Judges, Justices of the Peace, clerks, court reporters, or any other court administrative staff.
When we think of a lawyer acting in a manner that is unprofessional, discourteous, or lacking civility, we might envision a lawyer who; yells at a witness or another lawyer, misrepresents the court, lies to a client or another lawyer, or argues with the Judge or Justice of the Peace. While these actions can be very serious breaches of our duties as lawyers to act in a professional, courteous and civil manner, these types of behaviour actually rarely occur in our criminal courts.
Examples of Unprofessional Conduct
Where I have observed an apparent decline in the professional conduct of lawyers is in regards to general courtroom etiquette. The following are some specific examples of the decline in professional conduct of lawyers that I have observed recently in criminal courts throughout Toronto and the surrounding areas;
- Lawyers using their cell phones in court while waiting for their matter to be called. There was one occasion where I counted 6 lawyers using their phones to text or otherwise while waiting for their matter to be called.
- I observed one particular lawyer playing Solitaire on his/her IPad while waiting for his/her matter to be called.
- I have observed lawyers reading a newspaper, book or magazine in court while waiting for their matter to be called.
- Lawyers bringing their coffee into court prior to court commencing.
- On several occasions I have seen lawyers speaking to a matter in court while still wearing their overcoat.
- In matters where there is one or more co-accused, there have been several occasions where a lawyer arrives late for a judicial pre-trial, causing other lawyers, the Judge and the Assistant Crown Attorney to wait.
- On one occasion I observed an Assistant Crown Attorney enter a court without a tie and proceeded to speak to a matter.
- On several occasions I have observed lawyers addressing the Judge while standing with their hands in their pockets.
Although none of the above noted behaviour is ever likely to result in a lawyer appearing before the Law Society with respect to his or her conduct, it is still behaviour that reflects poorly on lawyers and the legal profession in general. Moreover this type of behaviour does not reinforce to the public that the courtroom is a formal atmosphere that requires a certain standard of professionalism. Lawyers need to be acutely aware that there are some individuals who attend court unrepresented and look to other lawyers when they do not know what to say or how to conduct themselves in court. As a lawyer, I do not want members of the public to think the standard for professional conduct is a lawyer who shows up late for a court appearance, uses his/her cell phone in court, and addresses the Court with their hands in their pockets.
Impact on Articling Students and Young Lawyers
The examples listed above also do not set a good example for younger lawyers and articling students who often have to learn about courtroom etiquette by observing how other lawyers act in court. Recently I observed an articling student question a Judge about access to justice and the efficient use of judicial resources with respect to a new courtroom procedure that had been implemented. Simply put, there were several problems with the printer in the courtroom on that particular day and there were more matters on the docket that day than usual. Sure, it was frustrating being at court longer than I had anticipated on that particular day, but I can tell you that this new procedure has significantly cut down the time a person has to wait for a probation order or a bail variation to be typed and signed. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this conduct was that the student indicated he/she was instructed by their principal to make these comments to the Judge. Needless to say the comments of this student were not well received by the Judge, and nor should they have been.
In the past I have been fortunate enough to have been mentored and supervised by a collection of lawyers each of whom has a reputation for conducting themselves with the highest level of professionalism. Professionalism, courtesy and civility were all qualities that instructors Judge Barbara Beach, Crown Attorney James Gumpert and Defence Counsel Stan MacDonald instilled in the students who completed the Criminal Law Clinic at Dalhousie University. These same attributes were also instilled by Crown Attorneys Shauna MacDonald and Paul Carver and my articling principal Daniel McMahon.
What to look for when Hiring a Lawyer
If you should find yourself in circumstances where you require the services of a lawyer, whatever the reason may be, take note of how a lawyer conducts himself or herself during an initial consultation. A lawyer’s conduct at an initial meeting might give you some insight into that lawyer’s level of professionalism. Read more about what you should look for when hiring a lawyer.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence contact me immediately and arrange a free consultation.