In Ontario the courts have been rapidly adapting their practice and procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning on July 6, 2020, the Superior and Ontario Court of Justice will now be further expanding its operations. The date is dependent on approval from the Chief Medical Officer of Ontario.
The Ministry of the Attorney General (“MAG“) has established an incremental plan to prepare courthouses to facilitate the return of full court operations in Ontario. MAG has announced that Phase One will be implemented on July 6, 2020 in a limited number of courthouses and courtrooms. Court operations will continue to expand with a targeted completion date of November 1, 2020.
I will briefly highlight some of the takeaways from MAG’s strategy for re-opening:
- Reopening of 74 courthouses and 149 courtrooms across Ontario;
- Workplace safety considerations are being implemented throughout courthouse and courtrooms including the installation of plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer stations, and distance markers. There will also be increased screening procedures for those entering any courthouse and caps on the number of occupants in each room;
- Each courthouse will have risk assessment conducted so that the proper preventative measures can be put into place;
- Virtual hearings will continue as we gradually phase back to in-person appearances.
MAG has yet to clarify on the types of in-person court appearances that will be heard during Phase One. Since the declaration of the emergency, the Superior Court of Justice has heard many “urgent” matters, being motions, case conferences, and pre-trials. It is hoped that the types of matters that are to be heard will be expanded as a part of Phase One.
In the meantime, counsel should continue to utilize and embrace the new technologies offered by the Courts to schedule virtual hearings and integrate them into their regular practice. Rather than waiting for a complete re-opening of the Courts, lawyers should be prepared to “attend” virtual hearings in order to best serve clients and provide them with access to justice.
Thank you for reading and stay tuned!
The motions in Volk v. Volk, 2020 ONCA 256, arose from an appeal of an order to, inter alia, sell a property owned, in part, by Doris Volk, who is incapable of managing her own property, and to pay the net proceeds of sale to Doris’ husband, George. This case is instructive for how matters are currently proceeding before the Court of Appeal and in general for the scope of examinations under SDA matters.
George is not Doris’ attorney for property. The attorneys for property are Doris’ daughter, Darlene, and Doris’ sister, Lisa. George brought an application under the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 because he claimed that the property was improperly transferred by the attorneys from Doris, as the sole owner, to Doris and Darlene’s daughter, Felicia, as tenants in common. At the time of the application, the property was registered with a 1% interest in Doris’ name and the rest was registered in Felicia’s name. Furthermore, the property was occupied by Darlene but George claimed that the carrying costs of the property were paid from Doris’ money in further breach of trust.
George’s application was granted on January 7, 2020 on the consent of Lisa. Darlene, Felicia, and the Public Guardian and Trustee did not appear or file opposing materials. The house was sold with a closing date of May 16, 2020.
Darlene and Felicia appeals the order of January 7th on ground that they were not properly served or provided with adequate notice of the application. They also brought a stay motion with a supporting affidavit from Felicia. Felicia was cross-examined on her affidavit and she refused a number of questions on the advice of her counsel. This led George to bring a refusals motion and an request for an adjournment of the motion for a stay pending appeal.
Both the refusals motion and the stay motion were scheduled to be heard before Justice Paciocco on April 14, 2020. Justice Paciocco noted that the agreement for purchase and sale gave the stay motion added urgency. The matter proceed on April 14th with counsel for Darlene and Felicia appearing by phone and counsel for George appearing by videoconference. George’s refusals motion was allowed in part. Justice Paciocco clarified that the proper scope of a cross-examination on an affidavit is governed by the issues that are relevant to motion. It includes questions that are relevant to credibility so long as it within the competence of the motions judge to determine (para. 10). He then goes on to give reasons for why certain categories of questions ought to be answered and why other categories were found to be irrelevant or unfair. Of note, questions about Doris’ state of mind were properly refused because it was unfair for Felicia to speak for Doris (para. 19).
Since counsel for George acknowledged that further examinations were not feasible as a result of COVID-19, Justice Paciocco ordered a timetable for answers and follow up questions in writing. The stay motion was adjourned to May 1st.
Thanks for reading and keep well.
It appears that the Ontario government is taking action to make it easier and more affordable for executors of modest estates to access the courts.
Where the value of an estate is relatively small, the cost of obtaining a Certificate of Appointment (otherwise known as “probate”) can be perceived as too expensive. As a result, an executor (“estate trustee”) of a small estate often administers the estate without the protection of probate. In some cases, people choose not to administer a small estate at all and abandon the assets altogether.
Foregoing probate may lead to roadblocks when administering an estate. Third parties (like banks and persons buying the deceased’s real or personal property) will often require that the estate trustee obtain a Certificate. Probate reassures these third parties of the estate trustee’s authority and protects third parties from liability, as it verifies that the person they are dealing with is authorized to deal with the estate’s assets.
In the past, we have blogged about the Law Commission of Ontario’s efforts on this issue, including the release of a questionnaire to Ontarians who have administered what they consider small estates.
It now looks like the provincial government is looking to address the issue as well. Attorney General Doug Downey recently introduced the Bill 161, Smarter and Stronger Justice Act. If passed, the Act is intended to improve how court processes are administered to make life easier for Ontarians.
Notably, one of the proposed amendments includes allowing for a simplified procedure to make it less costly to administer estates of a modest value.
Right now, the probate process for all estates in Ontario is the same, no matter the size of the estate.
The Smarter and Stronger Justice Act would make amendments to Ontario’s Estates Act to exempt probate applicants from the requirement to post a bond for small estates in certain cases.
Other proposed changes to the Estates Act include safeguards to protect minors and vulnerable people who have an interest in an estate, and to increase efficiency by allowing local court registrars to perform the required estate court records searches, rather than a central court registrar.
It will be interesting to see if the proposed changes will be passed, and how they may encourage more people to apply for probate and administer an estate of lower value.
Thanks for reading!