What Is a Reasonable Expectation For Receiving Justice From the Small Claims Court?

The Fast Paced Summary Manner In Which Cases Are Dealt With In the Small Claims Court Does Sometimes Result In Judicial Errors. When An Error Occurs It May Be Necessary For Litigants to Accept the Result As Is or Appeal For a Correction By a Higher Court.

Understanding the Small Claims Court Role In Providing Access to Justice Including Adjudication Expectations

Expectations for Adjudication Within Cases Brought As Small Claims Court Proceedings The case limit for the Small Claims Court, meaning the monetary jurisdiction in which the court is legally permitted to operate, is currently a maximum of $35,000 for each Plaintiff within the case. Of course, whereas $35,000 is a fairly significant amount of money to most people, and where some moral principle concerns may also be involved in the desire for truth and justice, it is completely reasonable that members of the public will expect that court proceedings, including proceedings handled within the Small Claims Court, are conducted diligently with a genuine pursuit of the truth and justice.

As above, it is reasonable for litigants to expect that the adjudication of legal cases will occur diligently and effectively, especially in Canada as a democratic society that holds high regard for genuine truth and justice; however, it is notable that the justice system, like all things, is imperfect; and accordingly, litigants may at times be left with some dissatisfaction and possible need to appeal Small Claims Court decisions to a higher court, or accept the imperfections.  Specifically, and in reference to expectations of the Small Claims Court, the Divisional Court, upon review of the decisions within the case of Li v. Evangelista, 2019 ONSC 6881 stated:

[15]  At the outset, it is important to emphasise that the role of an appeal court is not to enforce a standard of perfection but to intervene only in cases in which there is a risk of significant injustice. An appeal is not to permit re-argument of issues originally decided nor to determine how the judge sitting in appeal would have decided the case had it been presented differently. Rights of appeal are to correct serious errors and not to correct every blemish that might be detected in the original trial.

[16]  Intervention is justified only if there were significant errors committed by the court of first instance which render the verdict untenable. The standard of review is generally that outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in Housen v. Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33 (CanLII), [2002] 2 SCR 235.  Findings of fact will only be disturbed if the evidence cannot reasonably support the findings.  Decisions on points of law are reviewed on a more robust standard which is to say that an appeal court will correct errors of law on a standard of correctness although it will still be necessary to demonstrate that the error is critical to the result.  When it comes to procedure, much latitude must be allowed to the trial judge and the matter must be considered in context.

[17]  The small claims court is a busy court which is designed to handle matters in a relatively informal and summary fashion.  The court plays a vital role in the administration of justice in the province by ensuring meaningful and cost-effective access for cases involving relatively modest claims for damages.  In order to meet its mandate, the processes and procedures in that court are relatively streamlined.  When it comes to the sufficiency of reasons, an appellate court must take this context into account.  See Massoudinia v. Volfson, 2013 ONCA 29 (CanLII), Maple Ridge Community Management Ltd. v. Peel Condominium Corp. No. 231, 2015 ONCA 520 (CanLII).  Similarly, the Deputy Judge must be given flexibility in adapting trial procedure to the circumstances he or she is faced with.  I so not intend to address every ground of appeal, but I will deal with those that appear most significant.

Per the Divisional Court within the Li decision as stated above, while citing the Supreme Court in Housen, factual findings by a lower court are "disturbed", meaning altered or directed for a fresh Trial, only where the lower court made unreasonable findings.  It is notable that what is "unreasonable" and what is imperfect are commonly two very distinct things.  Interestingly, in Li, the Divisional Court went on to state that an appeal court will attend to judicial errors in law where the error demonstratively affects the result, meaning the decision in the case.

Summary Comment

With the above said, litigants are often frustrated to learn that the judicial system requires a higher degree of accuracy when judges apply the law to facts rather than when when making factual findings; and accordingly, litigants may take the view that the Trial judge misunderstand the actual truth with the result being the application of law upon inaccurate facts with a resulting injustice.  As such, litigants should be aware that the justice system is designed to perform reasonably and that human imperfection of judges may lead to imperfect judicial decisions.

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