The Quebec Court of Appeal recently rendered a decision clarifying the restriction set out at section 128(1)(a) of the Act respecting the Barreau du Quebec (“Act”), which reads:
128. (1) The following acts, performed for others, shall be the exclusive prerogative of the practising advocate or solicitor:
(a) to give legal advice and consultations on legal matters; […]
According to this section and in order to ensure the protection of the public, certain acts are reserved for lawyers called and registered with the Bar. The illegal exercise of the legal profession reserved to lawyers constitutes a penal offence. Unless a lawyer, providing legal information is permissible, while providing legal advice is not.
In Charlebois c. Barreau du Québec, 2012 QCCA 788 (CanLII), the appellant (not a lawyer), president of the Association des syndicats de copropriété du Québec, an organization providing services to syndicates of co-owners, was alleged to have provided legal advice to an old friend, who was the vice-president of his own condominium association regarding the agenda and running of the condominium’s general meeting via a series of emails. At first instance, the judge found that there was a reasonable doubt as to the appellant having committed the offence and as such, could not conclude that the appellant had breached the Act. The Superior Court of Quebec, on appeal, found the appellant guilty of the offence, concluding that he had provided more than just an enumeration of the law and thus had gone beyond the limits of legal information.
The Quebec Court of Appeal was therefore required to ask itself if the emails exchanged between the appellant and his friend constituted “legal advice and consultations on legal matters”, an expression not defined in the Act.
The Court concluded that the application of legal principles to a given situation does not constitute, in all cases, legal advice. This would lead to absurd results: a person telling a divorcing friend to ask for alimony, another telling his neighbour to file for the annulment of the sale of a house due to hidden defects, or a professor giving concrete examples in class could then all be in violation of the Act.
The study of a given situation must call upon a certain knowledge of legal notions that goes beyond that of a person not trained in the legal sphere. In this case, the response provided by the appellant did not correspond to any specialized role of the lawyer. Simply providing the sections of the applicable law, even if in fact providing the wrong ones or failing to make the nuances found in legal opinions, did not transform the basic incorrect information into legal advice as understood under the Act. Moreover, the old friend did not require a consultation or legal advice; the questions regarding condominium associations were commonplace enough. To give information on a general meetings does not constitute an act reserved solely to lawyers. It is all a question of circumstances.
As such, the Court concluded that the appellant’s comments were closer to legal information than to legal advice that did not follow a request for consultation. The Court concluded that the first judge was correct in deciding that it had not been shown that the appellant had provided legal advise and consultation on legal matters beyond a reasonable doubt.
This decision illustrates the challenges in ensuring that the Act is correctly applied and that the public continues to be protected. There are indeed at times a very fine line between legal information and legal advice.