Imagine you are involved in a legal dispute. This dispute has been ongoing for a number of years, cost thousands of dollars and has resulted in many sleepless nights. You finally get to trial and after the trial is completed, the judge rules in favour of the other side. The judge gives their decision, gives some brief reasons for their decision but after review, you still do not know why the judge ruled against you. Is there anything you can do?
The answer to this is maybe. There are two recent decisions, one of the Ontario Court of Appeal and one of the Divisional Court where the appellate court set aside the trial judge’s verdict because the trial judge did not give adequate reasons for their decision.
In R. v. Sliwka, the Crown had appealed the acquittal of the accused on charges of sexual assault and domestic assault. On March 11, 2016, following a nine-day trial, the trial judge acquitted the accused on all charges with brief oral reasons and indicated that detailed written reasons would be released Monday March 14, 2016. These written reasons were not provided on March 14, 2016. Crown counsel made numerous attempts to obtain the written reasons but to no avail. The Crown argued the appeal on the basis that there were no reasons for the decision. At the time of the decision of the Court of Appeal, no reasons had been provided.
The Court of Appeal found that the comments given on March 11, 2016 did not analyze any part of the evidence and did not address the serious contradictions between the accused and the victim’s evidence, nor was there an examination of the differences between the accused and the police officers’ evidence. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Crown’s submission that the March 11 comments were the “’bottom line’ or decision of the trial judge. They are not reasons that in any way explain that decision or expose it to proper appellate review.” Ultimately, it was found that there was no way of knowing how the trial judge arrived at her verdicts and that the trial record as a whole did not reveal the basis upon which the acquittals were entered and allow for meaningful appellate review.
In Fitzgerald v. Apps Cartage Inc. the employer appealed a decision of the Small Claims Court where the employee was found to have been wrongfully terminated from his employment to the Divisional Court. Daniel & Partners acted for the appellant employer on this matter. Among the grounds for the appeal were that the trial judge had not provided adequate reasons for the decision. Following a half day trial, the trial judge provided brief oral reasons for his decision that the employee had been wrongfully terminated.
In that case, there were inconsistencies with the testimony of various witnesses. These inconsistencies were not addressed in the trial judge’s reasons. In addition, the employer made an objection to the scope of the admissibility of a certain piece of evidence that the employee attempted to admit. The trial judge did not make a ruling on this objection, but considered the evidence in his final decision. The Divisional Court found that the reasons for judgment did not articulate why the document should be preferred to the sworn evidence of two defence witnesses.
The Divisional Court also found that the trial judge “failed to articulate intelligible credibility finding relating to the live issues as framed at trial or to provide a discernible path of reasoning permitting this court to determine whether this conclusion was supportable by the relevant and reliable evidence.” The verdict was overturned because the trial judge had failed to either make certain rulings on credibility or admissibility, or he had failed to articulate those reasons.
While these two cases vary greatly in the seriousness of the issues, the trial decisions were ultimately overturned for the same reason; the trial judge did not clearly articulate the basis on which they reached their decision. It is a well-established principle that justice must not only be done but that it be seen to be done. This means that when a party is unsuccessful at trial, they are entitled to know why they were unsuccessful.
Both of these cases emphasize the importance of the reasons for a trial judge’s decision. The reasons for decision should be a road map which can be used to determine how the judge got to their final decision. Where there is contradictory evidence, issues of credibility or inconsistent evidence, the trial judge should provide reasons that are sufficient for the parties and the public in general to determine how the conclusions were reached.
While this is an important principle, it is equally important to acknowledge that simply because a trial judge’s reasons are short, vague or confusing does not mean that the decision will be overturned. The trial judge does not need to go into great detail about every factual finding and every ruling on credibility. However, it needs to be clear either on reading the decision, or on consideration of the trial record as a whole how and why the judge reached the conclusion that they did. If it is not, this can be grounds for ordering a new trial.
While these decisions do not change the law with respect to this ground of appeal, they do indicate that the appellate courts are willing to intervene where the trial judge has failed to adequately set out their decision as well as how they arrived at that decision. This is true whether the trial related to very serious allegations of sexual and physical assault, or a matter in the Small Claims Court.
In both of these cases, the appeals court ordered a new trial. While the trial verdict was overturned, this should not be seen as a complete victory for the appellant. Success on this ground of appeal does not mean success on the subsequent trial. Before you commence an appeal on the basis of inadequate reasons for the decision, you should seek the advice of appellate counsel.
If you have recently been to trial and lost, there may be grounds on which to overturn the decision. The decision of whether or not to appeal a judgment can be difficult to make and the appeal process difficult to navigate. At Daniel & Partners, our lawyers have experience at all levels of court in Ontario, and have represented clients both bringing and responding to appeals. If you are looking to better understand your options with respect to an appeal, please contact our lawyers.
Blog post written by Associate Lawyer Brent Harasym.