Seeking Assistance from the Court to Fund Litigation
Typically, costs awards are not made until the conclusion of litigation. However, in rare circumstances, courts may order that costs are paid to a party at an earlier point during the litigation to assist them with the funding of the litigation itself, even if it is not yet known which of the party or parties will ultimately be successful at trial.
In what circumstances will a court order the payment of legal fees on an interim basis? The Supreme Court of Canada outlined the test for granting an order for interim costs to fund litigation in British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band. The Court summarized the test as follows:
- the party seeking the order must be impecunious to the extent that, without such an order, that party would be deprived of the opportunity to proceed with the case;
- the claimant must establish a prima facie case of sufficient merit to warrant pursuit; and
- there must be special circumstances sufficient to satisfy the court that the case is within the narrow class of cases where this extraordinary exercise of its powers is appropriate.
In the Okanagan Indian Band decision, the Supreme Court considered family law disputes as one of the few unique exceptions to the general rule that the costs of an action or application only be awarded at the conclusion of litigation. One factor that the Court refers to as making interim costs awards suitable in family law matters is the presumption that the property in dispute is to be shared by the parties in some way. Ontario courts have acknowledged this presumption to be the basis of allowing interim payments to fund ongoing legal costs in estate litigation, suggesting that the payment of costs to fund the litigation can be accounted for in the final decision. However, a party to family or estate proceedings still needs to satisfy the above test before an interim costs award will normally be made.
In estate litigation, it is not uncommon for the Court to direct the payment of funds for use toward one or more party’s legal fees out of the assets of the estate while litigation is ongoing. Most often, the party to whom interim costs are paid will be entitled to a share of the assets of the estate whether he or she is successful in the litigation or not. The interim costs award can be deducted from the distributions that are ultimately made to that party. While rarely made within contexts other than family and estate litigation, interim costs orders can allow a party that may otherwise be unable to fund litigation to advance or respond to legal proceedings that affect his or her entitlements as the beneficiary of an estate.
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