Justice Harris Discourages Deposition Evidence Absent "Pressing Reasons"
Rule 7-8(1) of the BC Supreme Court Rules allows parties to a lawsuit to, by consent, record evidence of witnesses prior to trial by way of Deposition. Deposition evidence can then be admitted at trial as authorized by Rule 12-5(40).
When evidence is taken prior to trial it is accompanied by certain shortcomings as compared to live courtroom testimony. Mr. Justice Harris discussed these at length in an Appendix to reasons for judgement released earlier this month.
In this recent case (Byer v. Mills) the Plaintiff was seriously injured in a motor vehicle collision. In the course of the lawsuit the parties agreed to record much of the evidence by way of pre-trial deposition. Ultimately the Plaintiff’s lawsuit was dismissed. Mr. Justice Harris shared some concerns about the shortcomings that can be created by deposition evidence at trial and suggested that counsel only agree to pre-trial depositions when there are ‘pressing reasons to do so‘. The Court provided the following feedback to BC litigants:
a) The majority of the defence evidence of fact was taken by deposition before trial began. This was done by consent as the Civil Rules permit. I presume it was done to convenience the witnesses, most of whom live in or near Quesnel and to save the expense of bringing witnesses to testify “live” before the court in Vancouver.
b) During the course of one deposition, I expressed some reservations about using depositions in this way. What follows are some reflections triggered by the use of this practice, and are not comments directly arising from the way counsel in the case before me conducted the depositions. They are also not complete, but merely illustrative of the kind of problems that arise by taking evidence by deposition.
c) It is well settled in our trial practice that the basic rule is that witnesses should testify live before the court. This proposition is reflected in Civil Rule12-5 (27) and in the many cases in which our courts have considered the basis on which to exercise their discretion to make an order that evidence be taken by deposition.
d) In this case, the defence evidence was taken before trial and therefore before the plaintiff had led any evidence at all. In my view, there are good reasons why in a conventional trial a plaintiff is required to lead evidence first on matters on which he or she bears the burden of proof. The defence is then required to respond to the plaintiff’s case, including leading evidence on any matters on which it carries the burden. This provides an orderly framework for the receipt of evidence by the court. It helps keep the relevance of evidence in focus.
e) Taking defence evidence first carries with it risks and potential inefficiencies. First, there is the risk that a defendant may not correctly anticipate what the plaintiff’s evidence turns out to be at trial. The defence evidence may not be properly responsive to the plaintiff’s case. Evidence may be taken that is unnecessary. Issues may not be adequately addressed in the defence case, creating the risk that a party may need to apply to have a witness who has been deposed supplement his or her evidence. It seems to me to be generally undesirable to take trial evidence out of the normal order.
f) There are further difficulties inherent in taking evidence by deposition. The evidence is not taken live and its receipt as trial evidence is not controlled by the trial judge as the evidence is being given. Objections may be made, as occurred in this case. Inevitably, the objection is made and left on the record. The witness then provides the evidence to which there is an objection, subject to a later ruling.
g) This seems to me to be unsatisfactory. It is preferable that objections be ruled on before the evidence is given for a number of reasons. First, if the objection is upheld, a witness does not spend time answering improper questions. Where several witnesses are testifying about the same matter, a ruling at the outset will limit the scope of the evidence of all the subsequent witnesses. Secondly, it is not uncommon for counsel to frame questions in an objectionable manner, even though there are ways properly to elicit the evidence counsel is seeking. It is far better for the court to have the opportunity to ensure that questions are properly framed and evidence properly received than to try to “unscramble an omelette” after the fact. This is not just a practical issue. Often the way in which evidence is elicited can affect the weight it is entitled to receive. There is a risk of substantive prejudice to the parties if the trial judge is denied the opportunity at the time it is given to ensure that evidence is properly received.
h) Finally, the trial judge has an important additional role to play in controlling the trial process. It is not uncommon for a trial judge to be called on during cross-examination, either at the request of counsel or on his or her own initiative, to control the conduct of the cross-examination. For example, it may be necessary to decide how much of a prior allegedly inconsistent statement ought properly to be put to a witness. That is a decision that should be made at the time the witness is confronted with the statement. Taking evidence by deposition necessarily deprives the trial judge of an essential judicial function. Doing so is fraught with risks to the trial process and risks substantive prejudice to the parties.
i) I appreciate the Civil Rules permit depositions to be taken by consent. In my view, the purpose of allowing this to occur by consent is to obviate the need for an order where it is clear that the circumstances exist that would lead a court to make an order. Generally, the party applying to take evidence by deposition has a burden to meet to justify departing from the general rule that evidence be given live. I will not rehearse the law on this point. But I do not think the drafters of the Civil Rules intended to encourage a practice that is inconsistent with conventional trial practice.
j) It follows from my comments above that I would discourage counsel from electing to resort to taking depositions by consent unless there are pressing reasons to do so. If there are legitimate concerns about cost and convenience, there are provisions permitting taking evidence by video conference. At least then the evidence is taken live.