Summary Judgment and Small Claims Court

April 7, 2014 | Eric Sherkin

The stated purpose of the Small Claims Court is to provide a streamlined process for parties to pursue claims of up to $25,000 in a cost-effective and efficient manner. In Superior Court, one of the options available to try and advance straightforward claims in a similar fashion is with a summary judgment motion as opposed to a full trial. However, while the Rules of Civil Procedure provide specifically for the ins and outs of a summary judgment motion, the Rules of the Small Claims Court do not. The question becomes: can you move for summary judgment in small claims?

In 2010, the Ontario Court of Appeal said “no”, with a caveat.

It appeared that the Court of Appeal had answered this question  in the negative in the 2010 decision Van de Vrande v. Butkowsky. The Court determined that the lack of a specific rule for summary judgment in the Small Claims Court was a deliberate omission and could not be read into the rules by the Court.

However, These motions are distinct from motions to strike under Rule 12.02 of the Rules of the Small Claims Court, where the Court may (among other things) strike or amend any document that discloses no reasonable cause of action or defence. These motions may serve similar functions as summary judgment motions, and Justice Rouleau noted in Van de Vrande that the threshold for these types of motions under Rule 12.02 is deliberately lower than that of a summary judgment motion.

With the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision of Hryniak v. Mauldin clarifying the rules and practice of summary judgment motions generally, there was some question as to whether this would impact the practice in Small Claims Court. There appear to be conflicting decisions that have recently been released on this point. I will focus on two specific ones.

The first of these is Petersen v. Matt. A Small Claims Court deputy judge summarily dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Divisional Court.  Mr. Justice Leroy for the Divisional Court applied the principles of Hryniak in determining when the Court may grant summary judgment, without any reference to Rule 12.02 of the Rules of the Small Claims Court or to the Court of Appeal decision in Van de Vrande.

The second relevant decision is Tuka v. Butt, which was heard the day after Petersen was released. Deputy Judge Winny in Tuka openly questions whether Justice Leroy was aware of Van de Vrande and notes that summary judgment presumably would not have granted in Petersen or upheld on appeal had the judges in question been aware of Van de Vrande. Winny goes so far as to state that “in my respectful opinion, Petersen v. Matt…does not stand for the proposition that Van de Vrande v. Butkowsky is no longer good law”.

It remains to be seen whether the Divisional Court or, perhaps more properly, the Court of Appeal will comment on whether Hryniak impacts the earlier decision of Van de Vrande in assessing what the test is on a Rule 12.02 motion in Small Claims Court.

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