Top Court Gives Nod to Expanded Use of Summary Judgment in Ontario

May 22nd, 2014 by

This blog was written by Ira Marcovitch, Summer law student.
On January 24, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Hryniak v. Mauldin and, in doing so, gave a sweeping endorsement to the expanded use of summary judgment in Ontario. In doing so, the Court seized on the opportunity to provide some much needed commentary on the use of summary judgment and its potential to increase access to justice, what many view as a signal from the highest court that a shift in litigation culture is in order.

Summary judgment or, in Ontario legal parlance, a rule 20 motion, is brought in cases where there is no need for a full trial to determine a lawsuit, usually where it is very clear that either a claim or defence is doomed to failure, or where there is no need for witnesses to testify. It is most often brought to deal with spurious claims and defences; however, parties can consent to having their matters disposed of summarily.

Prior to Hryniak, the dominant view was (and, in some circles, still remains) that a full-blown trial was the gold standard for civil justice. Anything that deprived a litigant of their right to a full trial, summary judgment included, was viewed with suspicion and hesitation by courts. In response to this, the Ontario government introduced amendments to the rule in 2010, intending to make it easier to obtain summary judgment, the availability of which had been severely curtailed by judicial decisions over the past 25 years.

Less than a year after the amendments came into force, the Ontario Court of Appeal provided its first interpretation of the new rule. In a decision that was viewed by many to be overly restrictive and contrary to the intent of the amendments, the Court held that summary judgment would only be appropriate where the judge could gain the ‘full appreciation’ of the facts and issues on a written record. If there were complicated factual issues, or oral evidence would be necessary, the judge was obligated to dismiss the motion and send the matter to trial. Once again, Rule 20 had been stunted by wary and hesitant judges.

In Hryniak, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal had placed too high a value on a full plenary trial, finding that a full trial was not a practical or favourable option for many litigants. Summary judgment, they opined, provided a means to increase access to justice, allowing clients to deal with matters quicker and more cheaply, and its use should be expanded, not curtailed. They charged judges with taking a more active role in managing proceedings to ensure that matters move quickly and don’t clog the already overburdened civil justice system.

The proverbial nod from Canada’s highest court has the potential to affect a shift in how matters are litigated in Ontario, with significant implications for both clients, and litigators alike. It is clear from the case that the Court intends for more matters to be decided at an early stage, without the need to move to trial. However, this could lead to a proliferation of improper summary judgment motions which, ironically, would only serve to increase costs and time consumed. As well, an increase in the use of summary judgment spells a concomitant decrease in the number of trials, which may result in less lawyers with trial experience. While not the concern of the average litigant, a well trained litigation bar is essential the proper functioning of the civil justice system and a decrease in trial experience may stunt the professional growth of the bar. While we will have to wait for lower courts to apply Hryniak to see what effect the decision will have on the use of Rule 20 in Ontario, the case acts as a clear direction from Canada’s top court that courts should be expanding the use of cost and time-saving measures such as Rule 20, and that perhaps the most painstaking method of resolving a lawsuit is not always the best one.

For the full text of the decision click here.

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