Tag: Civil Litigation
Estate litigation can be expensive. Sometimes a court may award costs to be paid personally by a party in an estates matter. Parties should always try to act reasonably throughout the litigation, as anything less may attract such adverse costs consequences. A recent example of this is the case of Dewaele v. Roobroeck, 2021 ONSC 1604.
The underlying application arose from the inability of three siblings to agree on how the estates of their late parents should be administered. The siblings were the sole beneficiaries and co-estate trustees of their parents’ estates. The daughter of the deceased parents brought an application against her two brothers seeking various relief, including an order removing them as co-estate trustees and appointing her as the sole estate trustee. Her application was successful and she sought costs against her brothers. Specifically, the applicant sought an order that her substantial indemnity costs be paid by her brothers and that the balance of her full indemnity costs be paid by the estates.
The decision on the issue of costs was given by the Honourable Justice Sheard, who held in favour of the applicant. In her written reasons, Justice Sheard provides a concise summary of the law governing the determination of cost awards in estates matters. First, she cites s.131 of the Courts of Justice Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.43 as amended, which provides that, subject to the provisions of an Act or rules of court, the court has discretion to determine by whom and to what extent costs should be paid. The factors set out in Rule 57.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194 guide the court’s exercise of this discretion. The overriding objective in a cost award is that it be fair and reasonable, which is, in part, determined by the reasonable expectations of the parties concerning the quantum of costs.
Justice Sheard further explains that in estate litigation, the general rule is that estate trustees are entitled to be indemnified for costs reasonably incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the “loser pays” costs regime applies to estate matters, and a blended cost award – in which a portion of the costs is paid by the litigants and a portion from the estate – is within the court’s discretion.
In this case, the applicant asked for substantial indemnity costs from her respondent brothers. Justice Sheard affirms at paragraph 19 of her decision that such an award may be made “where the losing party has engaged in behaviour worthy of sanction”. Moreover, elevated costs should only be awarded where “there has been reprehensible, scandalous or outrageous conduct on the part of one of the parties”. Here, the respondents failed in their obligations as estate trustees, deliberately interfered with the applicant’s ability to complete the administration of the estates, and failed to comply with previous court orders made. Justice Sheard found that this conduct was worthy of sanction and can be characterized as reprehensible and outrageous. As such, an elevated costs award was appropriate. Justice Sheard ultimately decided that the applicant was entitled to be fully indemnified for the costs she incurred in respect of the application, with the respondents liable to pay the majority of these costs (and the balance to be paid from the assets of the estates).
This costs decision is an excellent reminder of the importance of acting reasonably in estate litigation. If any party, including an estate trustee, chooses to act unreasonably then they may pay for it in the end.
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My last blog discussed recent steps taken by the legislature to modernize the administrative side of the practice of law in Ontario. The practical side has also seen a number of developments that have emerged as a direct result of the ongoing pandemic. Some of these efforts have been spearheaded by the courts directly, while others, such as the Estate Arbitration and Litigation Management initiative, have been developed by members of the Bar an in effort to continue moving matters towards a resolution despite limited court access.
A recent decision of the Superior Court of Justice provides some important commentary on the judiciary’s expectations of parties and counsel to adapt to the current reality using these tools and others so that files can continue to progress.
In Arconti v Smith, Justice Myers grappled with the competing views of the parties as to whether an examination for discovery ought to proceed by way of a videoconference. The defendant, who was to submit to examination, proposed that the examination proceed by way of videoconference given the social distancing guidelines in place.
The plaintiff objected on several grounds. Among other objections, the plaintiff argued that the defendant and their counsel ought to be in each other’s presence to ensure the process proceeded smoothly. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that the fact of conducting an examination remotely would “[deprive] the occasion of solemnity” and would otherwise make it more difficult to assess the defendant’s demeanour as a witness. The plaintiff argued that the examination ought to be deferred until social distancing guidelines were lifted.
Justice Myers’ initial response to the plaintiff’s position was simple, yet persuasive: “It’s 2020.” He held that the parties have technological tools at their disposal to conduct examinations and other litigation steps remotely, and that the use of such tools was especially salient in the context of the social distancing guidelines. Although Justice Myers advised that the concerns raised by the plaintiff might be relevant in different circumstances, they were not at issue there.
Ultimately, Justice Myers held that the use of readily available technology should be part of the skillset required both of litigators and the courts, and that the need to use such tools was merely amplified, not created, by the pandemic. The plaintiff was ordered either to conduct the examination of the defendant by videoconference, or to waive their entitlement to conduct the examination altogether.
This decision provides a glimpse into the court’s expectations of litigants and counsel to move matters forward in spite of the social distancing guidelines and court closures. While the current directives and legislation cannot be used to compel a party to perform a particular litigation step by audiovisual means, one may read Arconti as suggesting that the courts will nonetheless expect the parties to consider the entirety of their skillset to move matters along so that they do not languish in litigation purgatory as a result of social distancing guidelines.
Once social distancing guidelines have been lifted, it will likely be some time before the courts have dealt with the matters that were adjourned between March and June and are in a position to hear new matters. Parties who are willing to use the tools at their disposal to move matters forward and avoid contributing to this delay may find themselves commended by the judiciary. Those who are resistant to adapt, on the other hand, may expose themselves to commentary from a judge, or possibly cost consequences for their client, depending on the circumstances.
If you are interested in learning more about litigation procedure and estate planning best practices in the time of COVID-19, please consult our information guide.
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Ontario has officially declared a state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to quell the spread of the coronavirus are now stronger than ever. Indeed, the Federal Government is urging everyone to engage in social distancing, and the courts are no exception.
On March 15, 2020, the Superior Court of Justice published a Notice to the Profession, the Public and the Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings (the “Notice”), wherein it announced the suspension of Superior Court of Justice regular operations.
Specifically, the Notice states that all criminal, family and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after March 17, 2020 are adjourned except for urgent and emergency matters. Matters considered to be “urgent” are set out in the Notice and include motions and applications related to public health and safety and COVID-19; the safety of a child or parent; and time-sensitive civil motions with significant financial repercussions if not heard, among others.
To bring an urgent matter, the motion and application materials can be filed with the court by email. Notably, where it is not possible to email a sworn affidavit, an unsworn affidavit can be delivered as long as the affiant participates in any telephone or videoconference hearing to swear or affirm the affidavit. Urgent matters may be heard and determined in writing, by teleconference or videoconference, unless the court determines that an in-person hearing is necessary and safe.
Although people are being advised to avoid unnecessary attendances at Court, they nevertheless remain open and parties can continue to process “regular filings”. However, the flexible procedures that have been put in place for urgent matters do not extend to regular filings, which remain subject to the Rules of Civil Procedure.
The court’s response to COVID-19 is a prime example of how the legal system as a whole is being forced to lean on technology in these unusual and uncertain times. While many legal professionals have already adopted digital practices, the courts continue to be behind the times. The Auditor General’s latest audit of Ontario’s court system found that “the Ministry’s pace in modernizing the court system remained slow, and the system is still heavily paper-based, making it inefficient and therefore keeping it from realizing potential cost savings”. Perhaps this period will give the much-needed impetus for courts to modernize their operations by using electronic service, filing, hearings, and document management more routinely. This would likely be a welcome change for all.
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Recently, Stuart Clark blogged on the procedural differences between Applications and Actions in the context of civil litigation. In his blog, he aptly describes key differences between the two proceedings, which rests largely on the manner in which evidence is heard. Applications are determined on a written record, meaning that evidence before the court is contained in affidavits sworn by the parties in advance of the hearing date. In contrast, actions are heard by way of viva voce evidence (i.e. parties are examined, and cross-examined in open court).
As parties inch towards their final hearing date, the benefits and disadvantages of proceeding by way of application versus action may sharpen into focus. As Stuart noted, parties may decide that there are strategic benefits to converting their application into an action, such as having a sympathetic witness. Parties are free to take steps necessary to effect that change.
However, if parties don’t convert their proceedings in advance of their hearing, Judges have the discretion to convert applications to actions, and can order a conversion at the hearing of an application. In other words, if a Judge decides that justice would best be served by hearing a matter by way of trial, they can order the conversion of a proceeding at the hearing of an application.
Such was the case in Halar v Bacic, wherein the court determined that there were significant and material facts in dispute relating to capacity, and that a trial was necessary to assess the credibility of the witnesses.
In that case, a mother appointed her son and daughter to act as her attorneys for property and personal care in 2017. Following execution of the POAs, she was diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Shortly thereafter, the mother and her husband sold their home and moved back to Croatia. The proceeds of sale of their home were deposited in their Canadian bank account, with the understanding that the son and daughter would send money from the Canadian bank account when funds were requested by the mother.
The daughter and son ran into some conflict with respect to how the Canadian bank account was managed, resulting in the mother executing a new Power of Attorney in 2018, which raised questions regarding whether the mother had capacity to execute the new Power of Attorney.
The Judge was not satisfied that the medical evidence before him supported the position of the applicants and was not satisfied that he was in a position to make the findings and orders requested of him on the evidentiary record before him.
Ultimately, the Judge converted the application to an action and ordered that a trial be directed pursuant to Rule 38.10(6).
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