Supreme Court of Canada Endorses Broader Availability of Summary Judgment in Ontario

The Supreme Court of Canada has expanded the ability of Ontario litigants to obtain a final judgment without the need for a full trial. In two companion appeals released on January 23, 2014 (Hyrniak v. Mauldin and Bruno Appliance and Furniture Inc. v. Hryniak), the Court unanimously endorsed a more expansive interpretation of Rule 20 of Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure, which permits the granting of summary judgment. In calling for a "culture shift", the decisions encourage both summary judgment motions in appropriate cases and tailored summary trials where summary judgment is not granted.


Background

By 2010, there was consensus in the Ontario legal community that summary judgment was not working effectively to provide access to justice, or to reduce the number of cases overloading the civil justice system. Amendments to Rule 20 were therefore introduced, which sought to resolve these problems by giving motions judges the power to (a) assess credibility, weigh evidence and draw inferences from the evidence on a motion for summary judgment (rule 20.04 (2.1)), (b) hear oral evidence for the purpose of exercising their fact-finding powers (rule 20.04(2.2)), and (c) issue orders and directions to streamline the action going forward, in cases where summary judgment is denied or granted in part—recognizing that a full plenary trial may not be required to determine the issues (rule 20.05).


Judicial history of the Hryniak and Bruno appeals

In both appeals, the motions judge had granted summary judgment. The Court of Appeal for Ontario dismissed the appeal in Hryniak v. Mauldin, and reversed in Bruno Appliance and Furniture v. Hryniak, ordering the matter to proceed to trial. Despite the amendments to Rule 20, the decisions of the Court of Appeal reflected a continued preference for the "forensic machinery" of the trial, minimizing the impact of the 2010 amendments to summary judgment.

While dismissing both appeals, the Supreme Court applied a significantly more expansive interpretation of the summary judgment rule.


Rule 20 must be interpreted broadly – summary judgment must be granted whenever there is no genuine issue requiring a trial

The Supreme Court held that Rule 20 must be interpreted broadly, taking into account the culture shift toward promoting timely and affordable access to the civil justice system. The balance between procedure and access struck by our justice system must come to reflect modern reality, and must recognize that new models of adjudication, such as summary judgment, can be fair and just.

The Court offered the following guidance on the application and interpretation of Rule 20. The motions judge should ask herself whether the matter can be resolved in a fair and just manner on a summary judgment motion. This will be the case when the process (1) allows the judge to make the necessary findings of fact, (2) allows the judge to apply the law to the facts, and (3) is a proportionate, more expeditious and less expensive means to achieve a just result. If there appears to be a genuine issue requiring a trial, based only on the record before her, the judge should then ask if the need for a trial can be avoided by using the new powers provided under rules 20.04(2.1) and (2.2). The use of those powers is at the discretion of the motions judge, provided that their use is not against the interest of justice.

In the case of unsuccessful motions for summary judgment, the motions judge should make use of the trial management powers under rule 20.05, and should remain seized of the matter as the trial judge, in the absence of reasons to the contrary.


Standard of review of summary judgment decisions

The Court held that the exercise of powers under the new summary judgment rule attracts deference; the decision of the motions judge should not be overturned absent palpable and overriding error. Similarly, the motions judge’s discretionary decision to exercise the new fact-finding powers also attracts deference.


Significance of the decisions

The Supreme Court’s decisions in these two cases provide important guidance on the interpretation and application of the summary judgment rule in Ontario. Further, the decisions harmonize the summary judgment case law with the goals of the legislature to improve access to justice and afford all litigants the opportunity to have adjudication in court.

Trisha Jackson and Crawford Smith acted for the intervener, the Advocates’ Society, in the Bruno appeal, with David Scott Q.C. of Borden, Ladner, Gervais LLP.

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