Law Office Searches

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General Principles

See also: Special Search Warrant Issues

A justice of the peace should follow the following principles when considering a search of a law office so that solicitor-client privilege is protected:[1]

  1. No search warrant can be issued with regards to documents that are known to be protected by solicitor-client privilege.
  2. Before searching a law office, the investigative authorities must satisfy the issuing justice that there exists no other reasonable alternative to the search.
  3. When allowing a law office to be searched, the issuing justice must be rigorously demanding so to afford maximum protection of solicitor-client confidentiality.
  4. Except when the warrant specifically authorizes the immediate examination, copying and seizure of an identified document, all documents in possession of a lawyer must be sealed before being examined or removed from the lawyer’s possession.
  5. Every effort must be made to contact the lawyer and the client at the time of the execution of the search warrant. Where the lawyer or the client cannot be contacted, a representative of the Bar should be allowed to oversee the sealing and seizure of documents.
  6. The investigative officer executing the warrant should report to the justice of the peace the efforts made to contact all potential privilege holders, who should then be given a reasonable opportunity to assert a claim of privilege and, if that claim is contested, to have the issue judicially decided.
  7. If notification of potential privilege holders is not possible, the lawyer who had custody of the documents seized, or another lawyer appointed either by the Law Society or by the court, should examine the documents to determine whether a claim of privilege should be asserted, and should be given a reasonable opportunity to do so.
  8. The Attorney General may make submissions on the issue of privilege, but should not be permitted to inspect the documents beforehand. The prosecuting authority can only inspect the documents if and when it is determined by a judge that the documents are not privileged.
  9. Where sealed documents are found not to be privileged, they may be used in the normal course of the investigation.
  10. Where documents are found to be privileged, they are to be returned immediately to the holder of the privilege, or to a person designated by the court.

There is a duty upon those conducting the search of a law office to minimize the impairment of solicitor-client privilege.[2]

Law Offices
A "law office" includes "any place where privileged documents may reasonably be expected to be located".[3]

A search warrant of law office must impose conditions to protect potential privilege "as much as possible". Without proper protections the warrant is invalid.[4]

Appellate Review
There is no right of appeal of an order to produce law office documents under the Lavallee process. The only appeal lies in an appeal from verdict.[5]

Review of Documents
There is no requirement that a court review all lawyer documents to determine if they contain privilege.[6] Courts should only review "to the extent absolutely necessary".[7]

Section 488.1 concerning search of law offices was found to be unconstitutional.[8]

488.1 (1) In this section,

"custodian" means a person in whose custody a package is placed pursuant to subsection (2);

document, for the purposes of this section, has the same meaning as in section 321;

judge means a judge of a superior court of criminal jurisdiction of the province where the seizure was made;

"lawyer" means, in the Province of Quebec, an advocate, lawyer or notary and, in any other province, a barrister or solicitor;

"officer" means a peace officer or public officer.

Examination or seizure of certain documents where privilege claimed
(2) Where an officer acting under the authority of this or any other Act of Parliament is about to examine, copy or seize a document in the possession of a lawyer who claims that a named client of his has a solicitor-client privilege in respect of that document, the officer shall, without examining or making copies of the document,

(a) seize the document and place it in a package and suitably seal and identify the package; and
(b) place the package in the custody of the sheriff of the district or county in which the seizure was made or, if there is agreement in writing that a specified person act as custodian, in the custody of that person.

Application to judge
(3) Where a document has been seized and placed in custody under subsection (2), the Attorney General or the client or the lawyer on behalf of the client, may

(a) within fourteen days from the day the document was so placed in custody, apply, on two days notice of motion to all other persons entitled to make application, to a judge for an order
(i) appointing a place and a day, not later than twenty-one days after the date of the order, for the determination of the question whether the document should be disclosed, and
(ii) requiring the custodian to produce the document to the judge at that time and place;
(b) serve a copy of the order on all other persons entitled to make application and on the custodian within six days of the date on which it was made; and
(c) if he has proceeded as authorized by paragraph (b), apply, at the appointed time and place, for an order determining the question.

Disposition of application
(4) On an application under paragraph (3)(c), the judge

(a) may, if the judge considers it necessary to determine the question whether the document should be disclosed, inspect the document;
(b) where the judge is of the opinion that it would materially assist him in deciding whether or not the document is privileged, may allow the Attorney General to inspect the document;
(c) shall allow the Attorney General and the person who objects to the disclosure of the document to make representations; and
(d) shall determine the question summarily and,
(i) if the judge is of the opinion that the document should not be disclosed, ensure that it is repackaged and resealed and order the custodian to deliver the document to the lawyer who claimed the solicitor-client privilege or to the client, or
(ii) if the judge is of the opinion that the document should be disclosed, order the custodian to deliver the document to the officer who seized the document or some other person designated by the Attorney General, subject to such restrictions or conditions as the judge deems appropriate,

and shall, at the same time, deliver concise reasons for the determination in which the nature of the document is described without divulging the details thereof.
Privilege continues
(5) Where the judge determines pursuant to paragraph (4)(d) that a solicitor-client privilege exists in respect of a document, whether or not the judge has, pursuant to paragraph (4)(b), allowed the Attorney General to inspect the document, the document remains privileged and inadmissible as evidence unless the client consents to its admission in evidence or the privilege is otherwise lost.
Order to custodian to deliver
(6) Where a document has been seized and placed in custody under subsection (2) and a judge, on the application of the Attorney General, is satisfied that no application has been made under paragraph (3)(a) or that following such an application no further application has been made under paragraph (3)(c), the judge shall order the custodian to deliver the document to the officer who seized the document or to some other person designated by the Attorney General.
Application to another judge
(7) Where the judge to whom an application has been made under paragraph (3)(c) cannot act or continue to act under this section for any reason, subsequent applications under that paragraph may be made to another judge.
(8) No officer shall examine, make copies of or seize any document without affording a reasonable opportunity for a claim of solicitor-client privilege to be made under subsection (2).
Authority to make copies
(9) At any time while a document is in the custody of a custodian under this section, a judge may, on an ex parte application of a person claiming a solicitor-client privilege under this section, authorize that person to examine the document or make a copy of it in the presence of the custodian or the judge, but any such authorization shall contain provisions to ensure that the document is repackaged and that the package is resealed without alteration or damage.
Hearing in private
(10) An application under paragraph (3)(c) shall be heard in private.
(11) This section does not apply in circumstances where a claim of solicitor-client privilege may be made under the Income Tax Act or under the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act.
R.S., 1985, c. 27 (1st Supp.), s. 71; 2000, c. 17, s. 89; 2001, c. 41, s. 80.


  1. Lavallee, Rackel & Heintz v Canada (Attorney General); White, Ottenheimer & Baker v Canada (Attorney General); R v Fink, 2002 SCC 61 (CanLII), [2002] 3 SCR 209 at para 49
  2. Maranda v Richer, [2003] 3 SCR 193, 2003 SCC 67 (CanLII) at paras 14 to 20
  3. Festing v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 BCCA 112 (CanLII) at para 24
  4. R v Piersanti & Company, 2000 CanLII 17032 (ON CA)
  5. Dee v Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2008 NBCA 10 (CanLII)
  6. Canada v Blood Tribe Department of Health, 2008 SCC 44 (CanLII), per Binnie J at para 17 and 30
  7. Blood Tribe, ibid. at para 30
    Descôteaux at p. 875
  8. Lavallee, Rackel & Heintz

Seizing and Vetting Privileged Documents

It is the "court's responsibility to ensure that any privilege claim is properly reviewed and evaluated". For that reason a referee/trustee should not be the one who makes the decision on whether a document is privileged.[1]

  1. R v Law Office of Simon Rosenfeld, 2003 CanLII 13453 (ON SC)
    R v Hanington, 2006 ABQB 378 (CanLII) at para 16