The civil justice system in Ontario has long been plagued with backlogs, but the pandemic has heightened this issue to unprecedented levels. Ontario courts, already struggling to manage caseloads pre-pandemic, are forced to make difficult decisions such as prioritizing family and criminal matters. The result is that plaintiffs in civil matters are facing even longer timelines to the resolution of their case.
Louis v Poitras
In the Ottawa based Louis v Poitras, 2021 ONCA 49, the appellants had been involved in a motor vehicle collision in 2013 resulting in a tort and an accident benefits action. Jury notices were filed by the defendant in both actions, and trial was scheduled to commence in April 2020. After the pandemic cancelled their trial, the appellants moved to strike jury notice in both actions. The motion judge agreed. At the time, civil jury trials were not being scheduled in Ottawa, but judge-alone trials of three weeks or less were available less than six months away. Justice Beaudoin also noted:
- Few Ottawa courtrooms had been retrofitted with plexiglass dividers
- The courtrooms that were available were being prepared for homicide trials
- There were no current plans to accommodate jury trials in Ottawa because criminal trials remained the priority
- There was only one jury assembly room at the Ottawa courthouse, meaning only one jury trial could go ahead at a time
Justice Beaudoin ordered the trial to proceed in three week sections before a judge alone. His decision was overturned in Divisional Court because it was found to be arbitrary and based on insufficient evidence.
Decision to Strike Jury Notice
The Court of Appeal restored Justice Beaudoin’s decision to strike jury notice, noting at para 4:
“[…] the Divisional Court’s approach is at odds with the current reality faced by our courts. Superior Court judges are acutely aware of local conditions, and it is counterproductive for intermediate appeal courts to interfere unnecessarily. It is only in rare situations that an appellate court should overrule discretionary case management decisions. This was not such a rare case. On the contrary, this was a situation where the motion judge’s creativity should have been the subject of approbation, not condemnation. Therefore, for the reasons I will more fully detail below, I would grant leave to appeal, set aside the Divisional Court’s order, allow the appeal and restore the motion judge’s order.”
The Court of Appeal placed considerable weight on the importance of local circumstances and resources. Local judges are best placed to understand those practicalities and craft appropriate solutions. The Court of Appeal found that the Divisional Court simply accepted delay in the civil justice system as an expected and normal fact, and overlooked the importance of the administration of justice. Finally, the Court of Appeal noted that Justice Beaudoin had carefully considered the evidence in making his decision, making his decision far from arbitrary.
As the third wave of the pandemic continues and vaccines become more and more available, it is unclear whether other civil plaintiffs will attempt to strike jury notice to move their case forward. As of March 17, 2021, jury selection and jury trials are not expected to resume in the East Region until June 7, 2021 at the earliest.