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

In Ontario, the Small Claims Court monetary jurisdication provides that each Plaintiff may be awarded up to $25,000 (effective January 1, 2020 this limit increases to $35,000), which is a significant sum to many people; and accordingly as a signficant sum, and whereas 'principle' is often also a significant concern in the search for truth and justice, it is reasonable that litigants expect the processes of the courts, including the Small Claims Court, to perform in a manner that adheres to a quality level in the search for truth and justice.

It is quite reasonable that litigants expect a high quality for the adjudication of court proceedings, especially within a democratic society wherein the search for justice and truth includes the goal of ensuring the public respect for the administration of justice; however, it is said that system is imperfect and is also without an expectation of perfection of itself.  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.

Summary Comment

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, and the point of this article, 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. The higher expectation of accuracy when applying the law to facts, rather than when determining the facts, can be frustrating to litigants who feel that the Trial judge failed to adequately understand the truth of what actually occurred; and therefore applying the law upon inaccurately determined facts, being the full truth within the 'story' at issue, may lead to an injustice. Ultimately, it is important to bear in mind that the system is designed to reasonably seek justice; however, exacting justice perfectly will always remain as a pursuit when such involves the imperfections of humanity including the imperfect humanity as exists within judges.

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