Friday, June 22, 2012

A new way to dispose of weak claims or defences in Small Claims Court cases


Sometimes people are forced to go to court to pursue a claim even though the defendant has no real defence.  Sometimes defendants are sued even though the claim against them has no real merit.  Until recently, there was little opportunity for parties caught in these situations in Small Claims Court to have these weak claims or defences dismissed early in the process.  But that’s changed as a result of a recent decision by Judge McKimm in the Small Claims Court.  The decision is called Wood v. CIBC Mortgages Inc., 2012 BCPC 12.  Now, Small Claims parties caught in this situation can apply to court for summary judgment, instead of being forced to wait months (or longer) for the trial.

(Interestingly, in Supreme Court, the parties have long been able to apply for summary judgment.  The absence of similar provisions, until now, in the Small Claims Court has been of some concern to users of Small Claims Court.)

In the Wood case, the defendant-bank applied for an order at the pre-trial conference that the claim against it be dismissed summarily, on the basis that the claim was destined to fail.  The judge granted the application and dismissed the claim.

The significance of this decision is that the court held that, yes, in Small Claims Court cases a judge is permitted to consider applications for summary judgment, instead of requiring the parties to go to trial.  A party may apply for summary judgment in situations either where no evidence is necessary, or the necessary evidence is accepted by both parties.  The judge also ruled that the court may consider an application for summary judgment even where affidavit evidence must be filed by the applying party in support of its application.

In the Wood decision the court held that a judge sitting on a summary judgment application must determine on a case-by-case basis the amount and quality of evidence the judge requires to reach a just result.  In other words, there are no hard-and-fast rules.  A judge hearing an application for summary judgment has the discretion to determine what evidence, if any, will be sufficient in any given case, and how that evidence is to be placed before the court.

As parties begin to apply for summary judgment in similar cases, no doubt the courts will develop further rules, guidelines, and procedures for these applications.  But now parties in Small Claims Court who are met with weak claims or defences have the opportunity to try to dispose of the case well before trial.

(This article is based on the law of British Columbia and refers to general rules and principles.  It is not legal advice.  If you have a specific case in which you are involved, consult a lawyer.)

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