On Thursday January 23, 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) issued two related decisions that may ultimately go a long way to the possible extinction of the conventional civil trial. In Hryniak v. Mauldin 2014 SCC 7 and the companion case of Bruno Appliance & Furniture Inc. v. Hryniak 2014 SCC 8, the SCC in unanimous 7 – 0 decisions, issued very strong statements supporting the principle of proportionality which the Court confirmed was a touchstone for access to civil justice in our country. The Court resoundingly came down in favour of the summary adjudication of disputes which provide an opportunity to simplify pre-trial procedures and which move the emphasis away from conventional trials given that they often are time consuming and far more expensive for litigants. While focussing on the clear benefits of the summary adjudication process, the Court also confirmed that a fair and just result is still paramount but that undue process and protracted trials with unnecessary expense and delay can in fact prevent the fair and just resolution of disputes.
The two cases originated in Ontario and involved claims of civil fraud. A group of investors had wired $1.2 million USD to an individual which was then pooled with other funds and eventually transferred to the individual’s company. That company subsequently transferred the pooled funds to an off-shore bank and the money ultimately disappeared. The trial court, pursuant to the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, weighed the evidence, evaluated credibility and drew inferences. In doing so, the court concluded that a trial was not required and granted judgment in favour of the investors. The Ontario Court of Appeal held that the case was not an appropriate candidate for summary adjudication but nonetheless dismissed the appeals.
The SCC began its unanimous decision in Mauldin, supra. by stating :
"Ensuring access to justice is the greatest challenge to the rule of law in Canada today. Trials have become increasingly expensive and protracted. Most Canadians cannot afford to sue when they are wronged or defend themselves when they are sued and cannot afford to go to trial. Without an effective and accessible means of enforcing rights, the rule of law is threatened. Without public adjudication of civil cases, the development of the common law is stunted." [emphasis added]
With that opening, it was clear the SCC was going to “send a message” regarding the ability of litigants to seek swift resolutions to their disputes so that access to justice is maintained and not thwarted by lengthy pre-trial procedures, delay, and lengthy conventional trials all which can be extremely costly and prevent justice from being done. The SCC went so far as to state that a “shift in culture” was required in order to create an environment promoting timely and affordable access to the civil justice system. The SCC did recognize and acknowledge that not every civil case can be resolved short of a conventional trial but as long as a fair and just adjudication can occur, then a summary process ought to be followed given that the best forum for resolving disputes is not always “that with the most painstaking procedure”. As such, it appears the door may now be wide open to proceed by way of summary adjudication in a wide range of civil disputes.
In B.C., the summary trial and summary judgment procedures have been in place and utilized by our courts for many years. Nevertheless, there have been many instances where the court simply could not find the facts necessary to resolve matters on a summary basis and therefore refused to grant judgment as a result. However, it is likely that the B.C. courts will be even more receptive to summary adjudications using these two recent SCC decisions as further support for pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the summary procedures that already exist. As such, we expect to see a lot more cases being resolved without the need for a conventional trial. This likely will improve access to justice for all.
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