Words Mean Things

In the interpretation of legislation and contracts, words and sentences with a plain meaning are supposed to be read in that plain way. As we all know, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds; I’ve just found this remarkably detailed breakdown of some of the problems with the “plain meaning” rule, for instance.

But there are legitimate arguments based on interpretation, and then there’s denying that the same word in the same context in two places means the same thing. Which is what we have in this charmingly short appeal decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The background facts are set out in the Superior Court reasons better than I could summarize:

[1] On April 28, 2008, Jane Harper retained John C. Cox as her family law lawyer in respect of all matrimonial and financial issues between her and her former husband, Paul Brian Harper. Mr. Cox acted for Ms. Harper in this capacity for almost six years. During which time he sent her 37 accounts, which she paid. On March 20, 2014, Mr. Cox was removed as counsel of record. Mr. Cox then sent a final account to Ms. Harper.

[2] Mr. Cox’s accounts over this period were for a total sum of $445,734.98. The matrimonial dispute had not yet gone to trial.

[3] Ms. Harper proceeded, within 30 days of receiving Mr. Cox’s final account, to obtain an Order for Assessment under s. 3(b) of the Solicitor’s Act, R.S.O. 1990 c. S.15 for 38 accounts (the 37 initial accounts and the final account) provided to her by Mr. Cox. That assessment has not yet take place.

The lawyer seeks, alongside some less interesting items, to have the first 37 bills excluded from the assessment. The client is successful in defeating that argument; the court finds that all of the bills can be examined, as the client brought her request for assessment within 30 days of receiving the final bill.

Ah, but! the lawyer argues–all the previous ones were also final bills, and she didn’t do anything within 30 days except pay them.

Except, as both decisions note, the bills themselves and their cover letters all said “interim,” except for the last one. The Superior Court describes the materials thus:

[51] I turn next the letters sent to Ms. Harper with the accounts and to the accounts themselves. In each of the cover letters that were sent by Mr. Cox, he began by saying, ”Enclosed please find my interim account for services rendered…” and then filled in the relevant time period. The accounts that he attached all had a heading “Interim”. Below Mr. Cox’s signature at the end of each letter is the following passage:

This interim account does not necessarily represent the value of services rendered to date but only a payment towards the final account.

Despite these references to interim vs. final in his own bills and cover letters, the lawyer argues at both levels of court that interim doesn’t MEAN interim, really.

It pretty much does, both courts tell him.

And once again the simple legal rule that words have meaning wins the day.

Molly Leonard