Weir in Agreement: Alberta Court of Appeal Confirms Summary Rule
November 2020 - 4 min read
In Hannam v Medicine Hat School District No. 76, 2020 ABCA 343 (“Hannam”), the Alberta Court of Appeal re-affirmed its position in the previously well-known 2019 decision of Weir-Jones. Hannam is a significant decision as the Alberta Court of Appeal provides guidance on how to apply the previously set out Weir-Jones test while also providing an in-depth analysis to encourage the use of summary judgement.
Further, Hannam builds on Hryniak v Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7 (“Hyrniak”) in which the Supreme Court of Canada encourages a “shift in culture” of litigation and dispute resolution. The Supreme Court held that reliance on a conventional trial is outdated and no longer reflects our reality. This is especially true in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited the Court’s ability to hold in-person hearings more than ever before. As indicated in Hyrniak, procedures should be proportionate, timely, and affordable. Therefore, the Supreme Court specifically encourages the increased use of summary judgement procedures, instead of presuming that all matters should lead to trial1.
In Hannam, the Alberta Court of Appeal reiterated the Weir-Jones standard that indicates that summary judgment is appropriate “if the moving party of a claim has proved the material facts on a balance of probabilities and advances the law that vindicates the moving party’s position.” The Court also emphasized that the outcome does not have to be obvious, and there must be “no genuine issue to be tried” – which moves away from measuring the merits of the parties’ positions and towards a focus on procedural fairness2.
Hannam Factual Background
In 2013, after dropping her daughter off at school, the plaintiff Hannam slipped and fell seconds after the school’s custodian had sanded the sidewalk. As a result of the slip and fall, she broke her right ankle and pursued a case for personal injury against the Medicine Hat School District. The action was first heard in front of Master Robertson, who found that reasonable steps were taken by the custodian to ensure safe sidewalk conditions. After hearing oral arguments, the Master summarily dismissed the action as the case lacked merit and he did not see any case of negligence by the defendant.
On appeal, Justice Miller reversed Master Robertson’s decision and allowed Hannam’s appeal, as “conflicting bits of evidence” existed which merited a trial. Justice Miller decided the appeal in December 2018 and therefore did not have the benefit of the Weir-Jones judgment when making his decision.
Hannam Applies the Weir-Jones Summary Judgement Rules
Justice Miller’s decision was also appealed, resulting in the Court of Appeal’s application of the Weir-Jones rules, which resulted in a finding that summary dismissal was an appropriate disposition of this case. The Court of Appeal granted the Medicine Hat School District application for summary dismissal.
The Court applied the 4-part Weir-Jones test and reiterated that for summary judgement to be appropriate in Alberta, the following factors must be considered3:
- Genuine issue requiring a trial: “Is it possible to fairly resolve the dispute on a summary basis, or do uncertainties in the facts, the record or the law reveal a genuine issue requiring a trial?”
- Balance of probabilities is the standard of proof: Has the moving party met the burden on it to show that there is either “no merit” or “no defence” and that there is no genuine issue requiring a trial?
- Moving party’s burden: If the moving party has met its burden, the resisting party must put its best foot forward and demonstrate from the record that there is a genuine issue requiring a trial.
- Judicial confidence: The presiding judge must be left with sufficient confidence in the state of the record such that he or she is prepared to exercise the judicial discretion to summarily resolve the dispute.
Justice Wakeling and Justice Feehan’s majority decision found that there were no material facts in dispute, nor a genuine issue to be tried in Hannam’s action. In their judgement, the Court encouraged adjudicators of summary judgment applications to make conflicting findings of fact on a balance of probabilities, if it is fair and just, as is the requirement under summary judgment Rules 7.2 of the Alberta Rules of Court.
The Hannam decision provides an elaborate historical account of the evolution of the summary judgement rule in international jurisdictions, such as in English and American courts, its evolution in the Canadian context. All of the above has impacted the application of summary judgment principles in Alberta. The decision is an impressive data-driven memorandum in which the Court of Appeal undertook to review numerous reported and unreported cases that were decided over the 1000 days (pre and post Weir-Jones) to determine how adjudicators have decided summary judgement applications.
Upon review of previous summary judgement cases, the Court came to the following key conclusions4:
- Defendants are more likely to bring a summary judgment application than plaintiffs;
- Courts are not keen on ordering summary judgement when facts are in dispute, as it may lead to unjust and unfair results;
- Courts will grant summary judgement applications when there is no doubt about the correct disposition;
- The Weir-Jones test remains the applicable test in Alberta for summary judgment applications and is the most accessible and clear application of the Alberta Rules of Court; and,
- Weir-Jones resembles a summary trial process that is reflected in the Alberta Rules of Court.
In summary, the Court of Appeal noted that there is an ongoing review of the Rules of Court and strongly encouraged that any changes should improve the governance structure and rules surrounding summary disposition of actions. This review is intended to continue the “shift in culture” directed by the Supreme Court of Canada, resulting in less reliance on conventional trials and the encouragement of alternate dispute resolution options that are prompt, fair and cost-effective.
1 Hryniak and refenced in Stefanyk at para 144 of Hannam.
2 Hannam, para 161
3 Hannam at para 145
4 Hannam at paras 162-170