Shifting the Culture of Rationing

As Justice Karakatsanis observed in the opening paragraph of her reasons (for the unanimous Supreme Court) in Hryniak v. Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 87  “[t]rials have become increasingly expensive and protracted.” For the Supreme Court, the length and expense of trials is an access to justice problem. But (at least some) provincial governments, notably that of British Columbia, see it primarily as a budgetary problem, in that court time is a demand on the public purse ― it requires the presence of judges, court officers and other employees, the operation of buildings, etc. Accordingly, the BC government has chosen to ration court time by requiring parties who set their cases down for trial to pay escalating “hearing fees” which increase sharply if their trials get longer. The Supreme Court is now considering constitutionality of these fees, in a case about which I have written quite extensively.

A decision of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, Bosworth v. Coleman, 2014 ONSC 4832, delivered last month but recently highlighted by Allan Rouben, is interesting because it might help us see some of the issues the hearing fees litigation raises from a somewhat different perspective. To borrow Mr. Rouben’s description of the case, it was

a motion to enforce an agreement between the parties to limit the length of [a] trial to ten days, in exchange for the plaintiff agreeing to cap the damages. In Toronto, trials of ten days or more are placed on a long trial list and this can result in a much longer wait time for a scheduled trial. When the defendant appointed new counsel who considered the trial would take more than fifteen days, the proper management of the trial came back before the Court.

Justice Myers’ response (paras. 12-15; emphasis in the original) is worth quoting at length:

Before me, the defendants’ counsel submitted his honestly held professional view, as an officer of the court, that the trial would take more than 10 days to complete.  While I accept this view, I reject the premise underlying it.  That is, the trial will likely take more than 10 days if it proceeds in the ordinary manner in which the civil trial bar is used to proceeding.

[I]t is no longer appropriate to rest upon the historic way of doing things.  Doing things as we have always done them has created a crisis of access to justice (or inaccessibility of justice).  The Supreme Court of Canada recognized the challenge of ensuring access to civil justice in Canada … In Hryniak … at para. 1, Karakatsanis J. said that the system as we know it is broken:

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.

In this case, it is not the court that has sought to improve the accessibility to justice for the parties.  Rather, the parties did so themselves [by agreeing to limit the length of their trial]. …

As submitted by [the plaintiffs’ lawyer], the effect of the agreement was to take the delay, expense and distress of a long trial off the table. The issue is not whether the defendants’ counsel thinks that the trial, if conducted in a particular way, would take longer than 10 days.  Rather, the question is: can justice be achieved for the parties in a timely, affordable and efficient manner through cooperation by counsel and with assistance from the court?

In Hryniak, Justice Karakatsanis spoke of a “culture shift” that is necessary in order to make civil justice ― including the resolution of civil disputes by judges ― accessible to ordinary Canadians. Justice Myers’ opinion in Bosworth, says Mr. Rouben, is an illustration of what this culture shift will look like. It will take some effort from everybody. As Justice Myers explains (para. 21),

Improving access to the civil justice system requires all users of the system (litigants, counsel, judges and administrators) to focus on ensuring that the system provides fair and just processes short of the unaffordable, painstaking trial of yester-year.

Lawyers need to work harder, because “[i]t may take more work for counsel to prepare a short examination” than to just “raise every possible issue and ask every possible question” (para. 22). In addition (para. 23, footnote omitted),

it is very much the role of the court and the clients to promote access to justice by working with counsel to make trials shorter, run more efficiently, and thereby more affordable, timely and proportionate. For their part, judges will have to be prepared to increase their involvement and time commitment to assist the parties and counsel in case management.  This will require appropriate administrative support as was also recognized by Karakatsanis J. in Hryniak.

In short (para. 24, emphasis added),

the court should strain to assist parties with defining processes that make the civil justice system affordable and accessible for themselves as long as the result is consistent with the fair and just resolution of the dispute on the merits.

The reason I am quoting Justice Myers at such length is that his decision, even as it tends to the same end as the BC hearing fees ― a shortening of trials ― represents a very different vision of how to achieve it. Its driving concern is not convenience for the government, but access to justice for the parties. It works not by making the resolution of disputes by courts even less accessible, but by trying to reduce the inaccessibility; not by threatening the parties but by helping them. And it is more flexible than the hearing fees approach, because it recognizes that cases are not all alike, and that in some, a “fair and just resolution of the dispute” will require a lot of time despite the parties’ and the court’s best efforts. As the Supreme Court decides what to do about hearing fees, I hope that it takes note of Justice Myers’ thoughtful opinion.

I do have one concern about it though. What worries me is that the “culture shift” espoused by Justice Myers might make the already difficult position of self-represented litigants even worse. Such litigants will have an especially hard time focusing on the legally important issues and evidence. This is most obviously because they have a limited understanding of the law (both the substantive law and the law of evidence), but also because they necessarily lack the detachment between the personal story and the legal case that is, as Scott Greenfield explains in a wonderful post at his Simple Justice blog, crucial to “thinking like a lawyer” ― and to being an effective advocate. For self-represented litigants, the temptation to just throw the kitchen sink is thus especially strong. (Indeed, the case that gave rise to the BC hearing fees challenge, Vilardell v. Dunham, 2012 BCSC 748, involved a self-represented defendant. As Justice McEwan noted (paras. 19-20), it was a ten-day trial “largely a result of the thorough approach the defendant took to the case,” even though “[c]ompetent counsel might have cut the time in half, because counsel generally know how much evidence is enough.”) Steering self-represented litigants towards shorter trials thus risks imperilling their already limited ability to obtain a “fair and just resolution of the dispute on the merits.” Of course, this problem also arises, and is even worse, under the hearing fees approach. But, especially if they are going to be actively intervening in case management to shorten trials, courts need to be aware of it.

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