During the COVID-19 pandemic, our Courts have unfortunately, but necessarily, been impacted. As a result, the Courts have, at times, had to restrict the matters that may be heard to only those that are urgent, as defined by the Notices to the Profession that have been published by the Court. For instance, the Consolidated Notice to the Profession, Litigants, Accused Persons, Public and the Media lists a number of matters that are to be considered urgent. With respect to civil and commercial list matters, this includes “urgent and time-sensitive motions and applications in civil and commercial list matters, where immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.” Discretion is also granted to allow the Court to decline to hear any particular matter described in the Notice as being urgent, if appropriate, or to allow a hearing that the Court deems necessary and appropriate to be heard on an urgent basis.
Despite the Notices from the Court, there may still be confusion amongst parties as to whether their matter qualifies as “urgent” or not. As The Honourable Justice Myers stated in the recent decision of Nicholas v. Ogniewicz, 2021 ONSC 4442, “Self-induced urgency is not ‘urgent’.”
In Nicholas v Ogniewicz, the issue was that there had been an agreement of purchase and sale with respect to real property, which provided that the purchaser would submit requisitions two weeks prior to closing. Unfortunately, the requisitions submitted by the purchaser were extensive, and as noted in the decision, it was apparent that several of the requisitions could not be physically accomplished before the closing date.
A week after the requisitions were received, the vendor asked for an urgent hearing date, pursuant to the Notice to Profession – Toronto, Toronto Expansion Protocol for Court Hearings during Covid-19 Pandemic, to resolve the validity of the requisitions.
Justice Myers described the current state of the civil list in Toronto as follows:
The civil list in Toronto is building a backlog of motion and application hearings. It is currently suffering unacceptably long timeouts for civil motions and applications due to the effects of the pandemic and a lack of resources. Truly urgent matters are being heard on an urgent basis. But no judge is sitting around waiting for them to come in. They are heard at a cost to other cases waiting in the queue or to case conferences that the judge may have to defer, or to parties waiting for the release of the judge’s reserved decisions that the judge was writing in her non-sitting time.
In the court’s view, in this particular case the time-sensitivity present was self-induced by both sides. It was also noted that no one was at risk of physical injury, the property was not about to suffer irremediable waste, no confidential information was at risk of disclosure or misuse, and no business was at risk of imminent failure or irreparable harm unless misconduct is urgently prevented. Ultimately, the court determined that the matter was not urgent as set out in the Notice to the Profession, and there was no basis for it to jump the queue.
Although there may be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we must all still be mindful of the long-lasting consequences, including the heavy backlog that continues to exist, and will likely continue to exist for some time, in our courts.
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As many are aware, COVID-19 has not had a positive impact on the justice system. In accordance with the Notice to the Profession dated March 15, 2020, regular operations of the Superior Court of Justice were suspended, given the pandemic and only certain urgent and emergency matters were to be heard by the Superior Court of Justice.
Although since then a further update was provided wherein it was made clear that additional matters will be scheduled for a remote hearing by telephone or video conference or heard in writing, to the extent that your particular matter does not fall within the narrow exceptions currently in effect, the Court will consider whether it is urgent before scheduling a hearing.
Justice Myers commented on the question of whether a matter is urgent in a recent Endorsement and expressed his concern about the ability of the Court to offer services during this unprecedented time.
In the particular case at hand, the Applicant, sent application materials to the Court raising concerns about the upcoming closing of a pending real estate transaction and the possibility of a residential eviction. Justice Myers noted that this was done, knowing of the Chief Justice’s Order dated March 19, 2020, suspending residential evictions in Ontario.
Nevertheless, Justice Myers, via a handwritten Endorsement dated April 2, 2020, scheduled this proposed matter for a case conference, by finding that the urgency standard in the Notice to the Profession dated March 15, 2020 was met. Following the delivery of the Endorsement to counsel for the parties, the Court received a letter from the Respondent, containing submissions as to why the matter was not urgent and should not be scheduled for a hearing.
Justice Myers noted that the Court is now routinely receiving submissions on the issue of “urgency” both before and after the Court scheduled a matter for a hearing. Justice Myers further re-iterated the following:
- The Notice to the Profession is a not a statute passed by the Legislature of Ontario;
- Litigants and lawyers alike are asked “to recognize the exceptional times and to try and cooperate to avoid the need for Court proceedings where possible”;
- Guidelines are provided for those who need to access the Court while they are not in full operation; and
- Importantly, none of this affects the Court’s jurisdiction or the applicable rules of law such that scheduling is an administrative function of the Court.
In light of the above, Justice Myers made it clear that the scheduling of an “urgent” matter is not a legal determination and therefore there is no need or call for detailed submissions. His Honour further re-iterated that not only is it not required, but that it is not helpful and that it must stop.
In analyzing Justice Myers’ Endorsement, and given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, it is important that counsel cooperate with one another and the Court in effectively moving matters forward with minimized impact on the parties and the justice system. We are all, after all, in this together.
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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, pursuant to the Notice to the Profession, the courts are presently restricted to hearing mainly urgent matters. For civil and commercial matters, this includes “urgent and time-sensitive motions and applications in civil and commercial list matters, where immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.” There is also a broad ability for the court to hear any other matter that it deems necessary and appropriate to be heard on an urgent basis, but these matters will be strictly limited.
In a recent decision, Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah, 2020 ONSC 2401, the court considered two urgent motions brought by the plaintiff and the defendants, respectively. The defendants sought to have monies that had been paid into court several years ago, paid out from court. The plaintiff sought, among other things, an order prohibiting the payment out of the monies. The decision did not provide details of the background of the litigation between the parties.
The court stated that the parties’ first step is to establish that their respective motions are, in fact, urgent. The court provided some guidance as to what is needed in this regard:
“The obligation is on the moving party to provide cogent, particular and specific evidence to show the court that the relief requested is urgent. Speculative, supposition or theoretical evidence is not good enough. The present environment and limited use of judicial resources mandate that the urgency must be real and immediate.”
Unfortunately for the parties in this case, the court found that their affidavit evidence did not provide cogent evidence to satisfy the court that the relief sought was urgent. The reason for which the defendants had brought the motion seeking to have money paid out of court was not set out in the decision.
The court did consider the category of urgent matters where “immediate and significant financial repercussions may result”, and specifically mentioned (a) matters that may put a person in financial jeopardy; (b) the funding of a business, business venture or construction project, failing which the financial viability of the project is in jeopardy; and (c) the necessity of a person to have resources to pay expenses or an order for the health and safety of a person; as issues that would meet the test of “immediate and significant financial repercussions”.
In the current circumstances, we are continually adjusting to new ways of doing things. This includes bringing court proceedings. Based on the Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah decision, it is clear that parties will need to provide clear and sufficient evidence to satisfy the court as to the urgency of the matter in order for the court to hear the proceeding while court operations are restricted.
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