Civil Justice Reform In Ontario
Ontario has taken a number of steps to strengthen the province's civil justice system. Through a series of reforms that began to take effect in January 2010, Ontario is improving access to civil justice for Ontarians by making it easier, faster and less expensive to resolve disputes.
Small Claims Court
The Small Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice. The Small Claims Court hears disputes on a wide range of matters, including contracts for goods and services, debt collection, real and personal property, trespass, negligence, rent arrears, tort actions (wrongful acts that result in damages or injury) and consumer issues.
Small Claims Court is now an option for Ontarians and businesses with monetary disputes up to $25,000. Previously, it was only available for disputes up to $10,000.
Proportionality and the Costs of Litigation
The civil court rules now contain a general principle of proportionality to guide their interpretation. The time and expense devoted to any proceeding must now reflect what is at stake. Cases that are straightforward and of lower value should not take as long or cost as much as large, complex cases.
Simplified Procedure reduces the number of pre-trial procedures and streamlines the trial process in cases of relatively low value.
In addition to raising the monetary limit of Simplified Procedure from $50,000 to $100,000, parties now have an opportunity to obtain more information about the opposing case before trial. This helps to encourage earlier and more meaningful settlement discussions.
A plaintiff or defendant can bring a summary judgment motion if they want to argue that there is no issue for trial.
In the past, if the party who brought the summary judgment motion lost the motion, they were required to reimburse costs incurred by the other party for responding to the motion, which deterred parties from bringing any summary judgment motions. The summary judgment rule has been changed to give the judge hearing the motion the discretion to determine if the motion was brought improperly and if so, to impose costs where appropriate.
A judge is also now able to order oral evidence to be presented by one or more parties (a "mini-trial"), which in some cases saves the time and expense of proceeding to a full trial.
If matters proceed to trial, the court now has the authority to make directions on additional matters including timelines, examinations, and a discovery plan. This will ensure that the matter proceeds to trial in a timely and efficient manner.
Discovery is the pre-trial disclosure of important facts or documents to the opposing party in civil litigation. Several reforms have the goal of reducing costs and delays that are often associated with discovery.
Parties are now required, early in the litigation process, to agree on a discovery plan that sets out the scope, how documents will be produced and when pre-trial Examination for Discovery will take place. The objective is to reduce or eliminate problems by encouraging parties to reach an understanding early in the litigation so the discovery process can be completed quickly in a manner that is proportionate to the needs of the action.
Each party is limited to a total of seven hours of pre-trial Examination for Discovery unless the parties consent or the court orders otherwise. Previously, there were no restrictions on the amount of time for oral discovery.
To reinforce that expert witnesses are intended to assist the court with a neutral evaluation of the issues, they are now required to certify in writing their duty to the court to be fair, objective and non-partisan. Other reforms to reduce delay require expert reports to be served earlier and to contain certain specific details.
Under case management, the court imposes time limits for key steps in the litigation process. Case management is no longer automatic. Parties will now have greater responsibility for managing actions and moving them quickly to trial or resolution. Case management rules continue to apply in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor.
The timelines for mandatory mediation sessions for civil court matters, where a neutral mediator helps parties settle or narrow their areas of dispute in a litigation matter, have been extended. This allows parties more time to prepare for productive and meaningful mediation. Mandatory mediation for civil court matters will continue to only apply in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor.
Pre-Trials and Trial Management
Pre-trial conferences are now mandatory for all actions to encourage settlement and help identify or narrow the actual issues for trial. Other pre-trial conference reforms will make these conferences more meaningful, and better organize the proceeding in the event that it does go to trial. Parties are now required to file a detailed conference brief. In addition, both the parties and their lawyers must appear at the conference, and the court will have a new power to order a timetable setting out next steps when a proceeding is not settled at the conference.
Motion and Trial Scheduling
There are now earlier deadlines for serving and filing motion and application materials in order to allow parties more time to prepare, and to assist with trial scheduling.