Need to Address Trial Backlog in Ontario Supersedes Right to Jury: Superior Court

Even before COVID-19 took hold in Ontario in the spring of 2020, the province’s court system faced a massive backlog of civil and criminal trial dates. The backlog caused access to justice issues which have been significantly compounded by sweeping closures necessitated by the pandemic, to the frustration of personal injury lawyers and other legal professionals.

Now, stakeholders are investigating ways to address the backlog and mitigate delays in the future. One tactic, exemplified by a recent court decision in De Dieu v. Taylor, involves prioritizing the resolution of long-delayed matters over the right of parties to have their case heard by a jury. Naturally, there are both pros and cons to this approach.

De Dieu v. Taylor

According to Law Times, the decision in De Dieu v. Taylor states that courts should ‘weigh the right to a jury against the injustice inherent in a delayed trial in proceedings which involve lengthy delay and which face the possibility for uncertain and inordinate further delay if not reached in upcoming sittings.’

The case started with a motor vehicle accident in September 2013. A statement of claim was issued roughly two years later, in 2015. A trial record was served in May 2018, but the matter was struck from the trial list through no fault of either party. A pretrial was conducted for a companion action in December 2019, at which point the original matter was restored to the trial list for January 2021. A pretrial for the original matter was held in October 2020; the next month, it was adjourned from the January 2021 sitting list because jury trials were on hold due to the pandemic. Although it was placed on the May 2021 ‘blitz list,’ with a further pretrial scheduled for the twentieth of that month, the trial was not called before the first of June.

At this point, the plaintiff filed a motion to strike the jury notice and proceed to a judge-only trial as soon as possible. The defendant, wanting to be heard by a jury, requested that the matter be adjourned to January 2022. The parties’ respective rights were in conflict: the plaintiff had right to have his case heard within a reasonable time, while the defendant had a right to be heard by a jury.

Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice looked at two recent cases with similar features: Mohan v. Howard, 2021 and Roszczka v. Tiwari, 2021. It ultimately decided that the matter should remain on the upcoming sittings list: if a jury cannot be assembled by the time it is called, the jury notice will be striked and the case will proceed before a judge alone; if a jury can be assembled, the case will proceed before a jury.

“Before the pandemic, the delays litigants experienced in civil matters in this jurisdiction were significant and should not be normalized or considered acceptable,” wrote Justice Roger Chown, for the court. “The pandemic is not the fault of either party or the court, but it has compounded the problem of delayed justice.”

Do Civil Litigants Have a Right to a Timely Trial?

Canadians have long had the right to be heard by a jury. In the 1956 Supreme Court case King v. Colonial Homes Ltd., the court decided that the “right to trial by jury is a substantive right of great importance of which a party ought not to be deprived except for cogent reasons.”

The question in De Dieu v. Taylor, then, and in many ongoing and upcoming cases in which personal injury lawyers are participating, is ‘does the right to be heard in a timely manner supersede the right to be heard by a jury?’

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees those charged with a criminal offence the right to be tried within a reasonable time, but no such protection exists for civil litigants. However, it is understood by most stakeholders within the civil justice system that justice delayed often amounts to justice denied, particularly in cases involving serious injuries requiring costly and lengthy recoveries. For this reason, the Superior Court’s decision in De Dieu v. Taylor is a step in the right direction.

Contact Will Davidson LLP

If you or a member of your family has been injured in an accident, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation. Our team of experienced personal injury lawyers will be happy to review your claim, discuss your options, and explain the legal process.

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