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Self-Represented Litigant Defeated by a Limitation

Few would have the audacity (or the poor judgment) to perform surgery or fly an airplane without requisite training. The hero of The Simpsons, Homer, (a sad example of his namesake), can often be seen, rather comically, making errors on the job at the Springfield nuclear power plant – and yet there is nothing funny, in real life, about an untrained nuclear technician staring down a crisis. Our world is no longer one in which most people provide all their wants for themselves; instead, trades are highly specialized. Lawyers, for instance, will not typically build their own houses – most, indeed, would not know how to build their own tables. There is temptation, however, in self-sufficiency: one may save money in cutting one’s own hair and gain pride in cooking one’s own meals; and in case of failure, one may always pay one’s expert barber to salvage one’s botched haircut and scramble to one’s favourite restaurant to relieve one’s palate.

Whereas the consequences of conducting surgery or flying an airplane without training are readily apparent to the imagination, the risks associated with self-representation in court can be deceiving. Some think they are – or truly are – qualified to argue their own cases if they do some private research, study the procedures and access free legal resources at their disposal. They may find the endeavour exciting, a personal rite of passage or a challenge from which they may grow. It is a sad truth, as well, that many self-represented litigants simply do not have the financial means to afford legal counsel. Options available to litigants of more modest means – such as legal aid, pro bono and hiring a lawyer on contingency – are often imperfect (and, alas, sometimes unattainable), but they may be preferable to going into the legal fray alone. In any case, Bristol v. Bristol, [2020] O.N.S.C. 1684 (“Bristol”), is a stirring instance of what may go wrong with respect to legal self-representation.

The facts in Bristol are as follows: the matriarch of the Bristol family, Elizabeth, passed away on December 6, 2016, survived by ten children; in 2002, she executed a will in which she distributed her estate equally amongst the ten children; in 2004, she left another will by which she disinherited nine of the children and left her entire estate to Berry, the tenth child. Her stated purpose for disinheriting the nine others was that she had assisted them sufficiently throughout their lives.

On December 30, 2016, one of the disinherited children, Stephanie, filed a Notice of Objection, on behalf of herself and four of her siblings, alleging incapacity and undue influence with respect to the latter will. Berry filed his Notice to Objector on July 18, 2017, and then Stephanie filed a Notice of Appearance on July 25, 2017. After almost two years, during which time Stephanie was allegedly waiting for Berry to “take a step in the probate proceeding”, Stephanie brought a Motion for Directions. This was on April 23, 2019. The Court indicated that she should issue an Application within 45 days but without prejudice to Berry bringing a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the Application was statute-barred, for sections 4 and 5 of the Limitations Act prohibit a proceeding from commencing more than two years after the day on which the claim was discovered.

In its decision, the Court found that the steps Stephanie had taken, namely filing the Notice of Objection and Notice of Appearance, did not commence a proceeding; the former is merely a “caveat” or “caution”, not a proceeding, and the latter does not institute proceedings. She needed to issue an Application. It was next determined that the date of discoverability was either December 6, 2016 (the date of death) or at the latest December 30, 2016 (the date of the Notice of Objection), and that, therefore, the two-year limitation period had expired. As a last resort, Stephanie argued that she was seeking declaratory relief and that no limitation period thus barred her. The Court decreed that “will challenges cannot be framed as declaratory relief”.

There was sympathy for Stephanie’s position, but the Court declined to make an exception for her merely because she was self-represented:

“The Applicant insisted that because she was self-represented and because the Respondent had taken no steps, she was forced to bring a Motion for Directions in April 2019. It was only on the motion date that she learned that she was required to actually issue an Application. While all of this is unfortunate, it does not permit the Applicant to escape the presumption in ss. 4 and 5 of the Act.”

In consideration of Stephanie’s position, however, the Court opted not to order costs for Berry, to which he would have been entitled “in normal circumstances”.

In conclusion, we may finish with three observations. Firstly, as Berry won the case, the Court may have awarded costs against Stephanie. As was mentioned in the decision, estates litigants may have costs awarded against themselves personally – the estate no longer by necessity absorbs the legal costs for all parties. Secondly, had Stephanie hired counsel, it is likely that this procedural error would have been avoided and the will challenge determined on its merits. Engaging counsel would have perhaps carried greater financial risks, but the chance of gain (winning the case, settling) would have also sweetened the prospect. Lastly, Bristol is another lesson that litigants, both trained and untrained, must beware of time, and the limitations it summons, for it can be a stern and unconquerable foe.

Ian Hull & Devin McMurtry