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Supreme Court Judgment – R. v. Cole

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Some interesting arguments related to computer use and the expectation of privacy.

At my most recent workshop, a participant asked a question about property that is given to employees by the employer and the ability to access such assets in an investigation. After some discussion, he guided me to R. v. Cole, which, being from the Supreme Court is of particular interest. In my reading of the case, I am struck by the considerations for every decision in our legal system. In particular, this case, in my opinion is not absolutely instructive of Harassment Investigators as it largely involves a criminal case and considerations involving Police activity. Elements of the decision deal specifically with the concepts of privacy and the Employer’s policy instructions. Most organizations I have dealt with have similar computer use policies.

The accused, a teacher was charged with possession of child pornography and unauthorized use of a computer. He was permitted to use his work-issued laptop computer for incidental purposes which he did. While performing maintenance activities, a technician found on the accused’s laptop a hidden folder containing nude and partially nude photographs of an underage female student.  The technician notified the principal, and copied the photographs to a compact disc.  The principal seized the laptop, and school board technicians copied the temporary Internet files onto a second disc.  The laptop and both discs were handed over to the police, who without a warrant reviewed their contents and then created a mirror image of the hard drive for forensic purposes. 

The case diverges from a standard investigation in the workplace such as a Harassment investigation here, as the Police became involved. The teacher’s expectation of privacy was examined in that context. I have offered areas of the decision that are interesting to me.

“Computers that are reasonably used for personal purposes — whether found in the workplace or the home — contain information that is meaningful, intimate, and touching on the user’s biographical core.  Canadians may therefore reasonably expect privacy in the information contained on these computers, at least where personal use is permitted or reasonably expected.  Ownership of property is a relevant consideration, but is not determinative.  Workplace policies are also not determinative of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.  Whatever the policies state, one must consider the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether privacy is a reasonable expectation in the particular situation.  While workplace policies and practices may diminish an individual’s expectation of privacy in a work computer, these sorts of operational realities do not in themselves remove the expectation entirely.  A reasonable though diminished expectation of privacy is nonetheless a reasonable expectation of privacy, protected by s. 8  of the Charter .  Accordingly, it is subject to state intrusion only under the authority of a reasonable law.”

“While the principal had a statutory duty to maintain a safe school environment, and, by necessary implication, a reasonable power to seize and search a school-board issued laptop, the lawful authority of the accused’s employer to seize and search the laptop did not furnish the police with the same power.”

The Policy and Procedures Manual of the school board asserted ownership over not only the hardware, but also the data stored on it: “Information technology systems and all data and messages generated on or handled by board equipment are considered to be the property of [the board], and are not the property of users of the information technology”.

Even as modified by practice, however, written policies are not determinative of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.  Whatever the policies state, one must consider the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether privacy is a reasonable expectation in the particular situation

I have presented some of the arguments and conclusions of the Supreme Court. If you are interested in the full context, please refer to the source document. Of interest to me, the Court held that a workplace policy that explicitly states the laptop and all information is property of the Employer, however that does not by itself remove the accused’s expectation of privacy. A totality of the circumstances must be examined. Some more elements of the decision:

“Mr. Cole does not challenge the initial inspection of the laptop by the school technician in the context of routine maintenance activities.  He concedes, moreover, that the technician did not breach his s. 8  rights.  In this light, I leave for another day the finer points of an employer’s right to monitor computers issued to employees.”


“The Court of Appeal concluded that, in the circumstances of this case, the subsequent search and seizure of the laptop by school officials acting under the direction of the principal was not unreasonable within the meaning of s. 8  of the Charter .  Mr. Cole does not challenge this conclusion.”


“In any event, I agree with the Court of Appeal.  The principal had a statutory duty to maintain a safe school environment (Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2, s. 265), and, by necessary implication, a reasonable power to seize and search a school-board-issued laptop if the principal believed on reasonable grounds that the hard drive contained compromising photographs of a student.  This implied power is not unlike the one found by the majority of this Court.”

These three parts sum up the applicability of this case to our environment, the internal or external Harassment investigation process. No objection to the Employer searching and seizing the laptop or the data was presented.

What this case does tell me is that Employer’s need to have a look at the applicability of their internal policies, especially in the area of computer usage, and in particular when cases involve actions that may be criminal in nature.

Thank you to the participant who helped me learn a little more in this field, let’s all keep helping each other!

Where’s The Proof?

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An examination of the prima facie principle of investigation

In the examination stage of any complaint of harassment and discrimination, a determination as to the existence (or absence of) a prima facie case is necessary. Let’s review some case law in order to properly make such a determination.

Mr Olson filed a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his sex in the handling of a complaint of bullying against him. Mr Olson was informed by a supervisor (Mr Taylor) that he was the “natural selection” for a new position in a school that represented a promotion, however he could not give Mr Olson the position because of a complaint of bullying against him. Ms Mainville had complained that Mr Olson had bullied her. Mr Olson asked about the details of the complaint but Mr Taylor said that he had none. Mr Olson told Mr Taylor that Ms Mainville had made a previous unsubstantiated complaint against him.

Mr Olson first heard of the complaint on his final day of work before his holiday but he wanted it investigated immediately as it could have a detrimental affect on his career and community standing but Mr Taylor said that it would be investigated after the summer break.

Mr Olson felt that the bullying charge would have a “calamitous effect” on his entire life, including volunteer work that he did. He was registered in a course with a colleague and he was “hyper-vigilant” with respect to all his interactions, as he did not have any details as to what he may have done wrong. Mr Olson pushed for more information and eventually stated that he felt if he was a woman, the matter would have been dealt with immediately. Mr Olson submitted that further evidence of discriminatory conduct was the employer’s failure to follow their own policy.

There was some confusion in that matter as to if a complaint had even been filed, as there was little to no documentary evidence. Timelines were complicated due to several accidents involving Mr Olson that necessitated time away.

In the analysis and decision portion of the case, the arbitrator turned to the element of a prima facie case. The arbitrator referred to the Supreme Court case (O’Malley v. Simpsons-Sears Ltd) in which they defined the term. In part, a prima facie case refers to the allegations which, “…if the allegations are believed, is sufficient to justify a finding in the complainant’s favour absent an answer or justification from the respondent.” The arbitrator referred to a case heard by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (Abary v. North York Branson Hospital) to further illustrate the concept of prima facie. In part the decision read, “…prima facie evidence means that a party’s case has been taken out of the realm of conjecture and that his evidence in support of an issue is sufficiently weighty to entitle a reasonable man to decide the issue in his favour…”

One element that exists in this case, that I see regularly played out in my work is the element of a complainant asserting an element that they feel or think is at play, sometimes because they can think of no other explanation. However, in many cases, the complainant fails to provide any evidence as to why they believe this to be the case, beyond the general assertion. In this case, Mr Olson said that he believed he was discriminated against on the basis of his sex, yet he provided no evidence to back up that claim. The arbitrator concluded in the only way possible in my opinion, and the complaint was dismissed. The arbitrator noted, “There was no evidence of different or adverse conduct based on Mr Olson’s sex.” The analysis of the evidence was done, on the sole basis of the evidence presented by the complainant, who failed to meet this basic burden on proof.

Part of the work we do in the investigation of complaints of harassment and discrimination, involves this core concept, analysis of the complaint to determine how to proceed. A proper analysis with respect to the prima facie principle can increase organizational efficiency and workforce understanding of the importance of weighing evidence.

We are heading out of our summer season and into a packed training calendar for the fall and winter. I look forward to seeing you, or colleagues in our sessions, and discussing this concept further!

Why I Love Training

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Little did I know what changes would arrive when I accepted the position at Hill Advisory Services almost 20 years ago. As I sit in another airport today, having finished a training session, and on my way back home, I thought it might be nice to share some thoughts, namely what I love about training.

Our little company basically does two things: we investigate and we train. This week I had the chance to train some excellent professionals and in the course of the training I was able to share some of my thoughts, hear some of theirs and have a few laughs.

What do I love about training investigators? That’s relatively simple, everything. This week in Calgary we offered Harassment Investigation, Level 1&2. I was able to spend 3 and 5 days with my group as we wove through two separate true life cases and worked with professional actors. The basics: we offer theory, then progress quickly into the business of “doing”. We focus on small group work and targeted discussions which enhance learning at every step. Level 1 features a case that is memorable for past participants and allows us to plan for, and interview a complainant, a respondent and a witness. During Level 2 we interact with two witnesses, and progress to the redirect interview and a finding in the case.

These tasks form the framework for the real important work: analysis and discussion related to the dynamics that exist in every case. We have a chance to talk about why people react the way they do, what words we should use, how to prepare, how to be focussed, how to deal with strange situations, how to stay within scope, and ultimately, the holy grail; how do we base a conclusion on the evidence presented so that the finding can stand up to external judicial review!

My favourite part of every training session is that point, (and it can come at any time) where we transfer through some of the more concrete ideas and into the more abstract. In understanding some of the underlying dynamics, we are better equipped to handle a diverse experience in the future. It’s not so much about “how do you do it” in the form of a flowchart or template and more about “here’s some things that I think about when confronted with similar situations”. In this way, we all grow. Without honest participation, this is not possible.

I have been fortunate enough to develop this training package and see the growth in countless groups over the years and at the end of every training session I truly feel as if it was the best one to date. That’s a great feeling!

If you have been a part of our training, thank you for your humour, your hard work, your questions and your compliments. If we have yet to meet, I hope to see you soon, for the best training I have ever conducted!