An Important Reminder From ONCA About A Viable Ground Of Appeal: Inadequate Trial Judge Reasons

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The Ontario Court of Appeal recently released a decision clarifying why it is important for trial judges to provide adequate reasons to civil litigants.
Canada Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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"Civil litigants deserve to know why a trial judge rules against them".

The Ontario Court of Appeal recently released a decision clarifying why it is important for trial judges to provide adequate reasons to civil litigants. The court reminded litigants of what "adequate" means, and that inadequate reasons can form a viable ground of appeal in certain circumstances.

In Penate v. Martoglio, 2024 ONCA 166, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial after concluding that the trial judge's five-paragraph reasons for discharging a jury were insufficient. The court stated that "trial judges must issue reasons explaining their decisions that litigants can understand and the appeal court can review. Providing such reasons respects litigants' dignity, ensures that they can exercise their right to a meaningful appeal, and makes judicial reasoning transparent and accountable to the public".

The court made the following important observation about judicial reasons:

  • Why Adequate Reasons are Important – Respecting Litigants' Rights and Dignity and Promoting Transparency and Accountability: The court confirmed that adequate reasons are "a basic entitlement of every litigant". It stated that civil litigants deserve reasons "that explain what the trial judge has decided, that can be reasonably understood, and that an appellate court can meaningfully review". Providing adequate reasons "also respects the dignity of losing litigants by demonstrating that the trial judge has considered their arguments and taken the time to explain why they lost, thereby increasing the likelihood that losing litigants will feel that they were treated fairly". Adequate reasons also make judicial reasoning "transparent and accountable to the public". Adequate reasons are especially necessary to justify discretionary decisions that severely impact litigants' important rights.
  • What is "Adequate": The court stated that "conclusory reasons" are not adequate. Reasons cannot merely repeat "stock phrases of what a trial judge is expected to do". Rather, reasons must "explain why trial judges reached the decisions they did by addressing the parties' key arguments and the key, live issues in the case and making any necessary findings concerning those issues". "Responsive reasons" are the "primary mechanism by which decision makers demonstrate that they have actually listened to the parties". Reasons that "merely repeat the legal standard and state a bottom-line conclusion are inconsistent with the need for judicial decision-makers to justify their decisions".
  • There are Limits to Appeal Court's Ability to Supplement Reasons: The court stated that its ability to supplement the trial judge's reasons by reviewing the record has limits: "if the record does not make the trial judge's reasoning apparent, it is not the appellate court's role to perform its own analysis to resolve issues that the trial judge did not adequately address, especially if the resolution of those issues requires making findings or discretionary decisions. Further, reviewing the record is not a licence to read in reasons that could have been given but were not. Reviewing courts are not permitted to import different reasons that contradict the reasons that the trial judge actually gave. Rather, reviewing the record is limited in scope by its purpose: to clarify the trial judge's reasons and make them more comprehensible".

In Penate, the trial judge discharged the jury, tried the case herself and determined that the appellants had failed to prove their medical malpractice claim. The five-paragraph decision discharging the jury was comprised mostly of a block quote from a previous case. The appellants appealed, among other things, on the basis that the trial judge failed to provide adequate reasons for her decision to take away their right to a jury trial. The Court of Appeal confirmed that without adequate reasons, no deference is owed to a trial judge's decision. The court concluded that the trial judge did not adequately explain her decision and that the inadequate reasons prevented the court from meaningfully reviewing whether it was proper. It allowed the appeal on this basis.

Given that trial by jury is a fundamental right and that this was a complex case with competing expert testimony and credibility and reliability issues, the court was not convinced that the Penates would have inevitably lost if the jury tried the case. As such, the court ordered a new trial.

Notably, just several days after Penate was released, the Divisional Court released another decision allowing an appeal on the basis of insufficient trial judge reasons.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

An Important Reminder From ONCA About A Viable Ground Of Appeal: Inadequate Trial Judge Reasons

Canada Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration

Contributor

Fasken is a leading international law firm with more than 700 lawyers and 10 offices on four continents. Clients rely on us for practical, innovative and cost-effective legal services. We solve the most complex business and litigation challenges, providing exceptional value and putting clients at the centre of all we do. For additional information, please visit the Firm’s website at fasken.com.
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