A Case Study in Case Law – Part 1
There’s so much to learn from a published decision…
A recently published Small Claims Court decision not only guides the public and legal professionals about how judges apply the law to a claim in reaching a decision, but also reveals a lot about the Small Claims Court process.
To get the most out of this article, please open this link in a new window (or print yourself a copy) so you can follow along as I dissect the case.
The case is interesting enough on its own, but what I found even more interesting is the information that can be uncovered by a careful study of the decision. Let’s start with the first page…
The File Number:
The file number is located at the top right corner of the first page. The “SC” indicates that this is a Small Claims Court matter. The “14” indicates that the plaintiff’s claim was issued by the court in 2014. The “3764” is the sequential number for that year. In other words, there were 3,763 claims issued by this particular court location before this one. In reading the decision and the timeline it reveals, my best guess is that this claim was issued sometime in March of 2014, so that means this is a busy court having issued almost 4,000 claims in the first three months of the year.
Small Claims Courts throughout the province handle an enormous volume of matters each day. Not all courts are this busy (I suspect this was issued at Brampton based on the details of the case), but most process hundreds of claims per month. The huge volume is one factor in the time it takes to move a matter through the system. The takeaway here? Pursuing a matter through the legal system requires a time investment.
More proof of that can be found in the next section…
Just below the names of the plaintiff and defendant are the dates the matter was before the judge for trial. The first day of trial was August 7, 2015 and the last was June 3, 2016. A claim that was (likely) filed in March of 2014 didn’t see the inside of a courtroom for over two years and then it was ten more months just to get to the end of trial! These sorts of delays can be for a number of reasons. Sometimes the court just runs out of time to get to the end of trial on the first day. Maybe insufficient time was booked when the trial was scheduled. Occasionally witness availability plays a role or the testimony they provide is detailed and technical in nature which requires a lot of time. Less frequently there are objections and legal side-issues that need to be decided by judge before the actual trial can move forward. While evidentiary and procedural rules are more relaxed in Small Claims Court than in higher courts, they still matter and can still slow things down. Although apparently not a factor in this case, any witness testimony requiring the assistance of an interpreter will always require more time as both the questions and the answers require translation.
Many litigants in Small Claims Court are self-represented. This case is rare in that both parties were represented and rarer still that both representatives were lawyers. Another unusual element to this case is that the plaintiff himself is a licensed paralegal (see page 2 of the decision) and yet retained a lawyer to represent him.
Small Claims Court was created to be “the people’s court” where a party could represent themselves without having to deal with the more complex rules of the higher courts. The reality is that a litigant without legal training and experience will simply not have the tools to identify all relevant legal issues, frame a pleading (claim or defence) in the best possible way, know what evidence is relevant and required to support their position, or know how to effectively question or cross-examine a witness. It’s a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know” and a self-represented litigant will often learn difficult lessons when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Small Claims Court is largely the domain of paralegals. Lawyers are not often involved in Small Claims matters primarily due to the fees that they charge. When the cost to retain a lawyer is compared with the amount of the claim it quickly becomes apparent that hiring a lawyer is prohibitively expensive. The result is that paralegals often have far more Small Claims Court experience than lawyers. Small Claims is our bread and butter and we are involved in it far more frequently than most lawyers.
The plaintiff in this case was a licensed paralegal so why was he represented? Probably because he knew enough about Small Claims Court to know that he didn’t know enough about Small Claims Court. Like many legal professionals, the plaintiff in this case has specialized in a particular area of law, namely accident benefits (see page 2 of the decision). While he may well be completely competent to handle accident benefits claims, he may not have had the knowledge and skills to pursue a claim on his own behalf which involves contract law, the Sales of Goods Act and the Consumer Protection Act.
The defendant in this case either hired their lawyer directly or the lawyer may have been provided by the defendant’s insurer.
1.) Legal action takes time. Be prepared for that and factor it in to your decision to start or defend a claim.
2.) Get representation. And do so as early in the process as possible. Sometimes early mistakes become time-bombs.
So there you have it, and all of this from the front page of a decision.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will examine the actual issues in this case and how contracts and legislation cross paths.