Supreme Court expands circumstances when a trial can be avoided

The Supreme Court of Canada released a decision on January 23, 2014 which will likely expand the numbers of cases that reach a final judgement before going to a full trial.

The decision, Hryniak v. Mauldin, involved a claim relating to civil fraud.  The case had initially been decided by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by way of Summary Judgement.  The decision was appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal which overturned the lower court’s decision, holding that the case should not have been determined on the basis of Summary Judgement and instead should have continued to a full trial.

Summary Judgement allows a judge to decide a case without going to a full trial.  In order to have a decision determined by way of Summary of Judgement, the party requesting this process must successfully argue that justice can be done without a fully trial process in which there is a review of evidence by way of oral testimony.

The Summary Judgement process is less comprehensive than a full trial.  Typically it involves the presentation of evidence through “affidavits” in which the parties (and witnesses) provide their evidence in writing.  What this means is that, unless the judge hearing the motion for Summary Judgement orders that an individual be called to provide oral evidence, the judge typically makes their decision on the written record (including affidavits and supporting documents) and after hearing the oral arguments of each party’s representatives.

Because the process is significantly streamlined, courts are hesitant to use their discretion to decide a matter via Summary Judgement unless they feel that justice can be done without a full trial.  It has always been difficult to precisely determine when it is appropriate to determine a case via Summary Judgment.  This question became more difficult to answer in Ontario since the implementation of changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure in 2010 which explicitly gave judges who are reviewing cases via Summary Judgement to do any of the following:

  • Weigh evidence
  • Evaluate credibility of a deponent
  • Draw inferences from evidence

These changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure expanded the tools available to a judge when attempting to determine a case by way of Summary Judgment.  It was a particularly bold change in light of the fact that these powers have typically been restricted to judges presiding over full trials, a forum in which a judge can hear, question and look into the eyes of each person presenting evidence.

The decision in Hyrniak v. Mauldin indicates that the Supreme Court wants to ensure that parties can reach final judgements as quickly as possible.  The Court in this case specifically emphasized that a trial is not necessary if a Summary Judgment motion can achieve a “fair and just” result and if a judge is able to process all the necessary facts and sufficiently apply these facts to the law necessary to determine all outstanding issues.  The Court also emphasized the importance of encouraging expedited processes and less expensive means to reach final decisions where appropriate.

What does this mean for employers?

The Supreme Court’s decision makes it clear that, while providing a fair trial to all parties involved in a case remains a top priority, the country’s highest court is concerned about access to justice.  Specifically the Court is cognizant of criticism that the trial process is both an extremely costly and lengthy process.  The Supreme Court accordingly indicated in this case that it expects judges to take a serious look at each case before eliminating the possibility that the issues at hand can be determined without a full trial.

Employers may therefore find that employees are able to bring cases to courts with greater ease moving forward.  Employers may accordingly  find themselves under pressure to take a serious look at offers for settlement earlier than they may have otherwise.  Similarly, employers may be able to put an end to more cases that hold little to no merit without resort to a full trial.  Employers would accordingly be wise to review their negotiation strategies against the direction of the courts to maximize optimal outcomes.