Severance of Court Actions Upheld On Appeal

Severance of Court Actions Upheld On Appeal

The Court of Appeal in Johnston v Johnston Estate 2017 BCCA 59 upheld the trial decision found at 2016 BCSC 1388 where an action seeking that a will was invalid, or alternatively if it was valid it should be varied under the wills variation provisions , should be severed into two court actions, with the validity of the will to be determined firstly.

The Appeal Court expanded upon the reasons of the trial judge in  ordering a severance of the two claims as follows:

A discretionary decision of a lower court will be reversible where that court misdirected itself or came to a decision that is so clearly wrong that it amounts to an injustice: Elsom v. Elsom, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1367, at p. 1375. Reversing a lower court’s discretionary decision is also appropriate where the lower court gives no or insufficient weight to relevant considerations: Friends of the Oldman River Society v. Canada . . . [At para. 27.]

(See also: Rise & Shine Grocery & Gas Ltd. v. Novak, 2016 BCCA 483 at paras. 36 — 37.)

43      The standard of review for discretionary decisions is one of deference.

44      As noted by the PGT, in addition to the court’s jurisdiction under Rule 22-5, it may temporarily stay a proceeding pursuant to its inherent jurisdiction or under s. 8(2) of the Law and Equity Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 253, or both: Zurich Indemnity Co. of Canada v. Western Delta Lands Inc. (1997), 38 B.C.L.R. (3d) 273, 95 B.C.A.C. 165 at para. 14 (C.A.), leave to appeal to S.C.C. refused [1997] S.C.C.A. No. 469. In exercising its discretion to grant or deny a stay, the court must weigh the potential benefits and prejudice at play and fairly balance the parties’ competing interests.

45      The court’s jurisdiction under Rule 22-5, s. 8(2) of the Law and Equity Act, and its inherent jurisdiction are exceptions to the principle stated in s. 10 of the Law and Equity Act as to the general avoidance of multiplicity of legal proceedings “as far as possible”.

46      I would endorse the judge’s non-exclusive summary of the key considerations relevant to an application to sever and the general principles governing severance:

[68] The key factors engaged in a general sense on an application to sever were canvassed in Schaper v. Sears Canada, 2000 BCSC 1575[Schaper] at para. 19:

1. . . . the party making the request must show that hearing the claims together would unduly complicate, delay the hearing, or otherwise be inconvenient. If a party applying does not meet this threshold, the court need not go further in any analysis and the application should be dismissed.

2. Have the actions of any party in the proceeding been unreasonable and have they contributed to the complication, the delay, or the inconvenience alleged by the party applying? If this found [sic], that would strengthen the argument to sever.

3. Are the issues between the plaintiff and defendant and the issues between the defendant and the third party sufficiently distinct so as to allow them to be tried separately? If so, that strengthens the argument to sever off third party proceeding.

4. Is the relief claimed by, or the potential obligation of, any party best determined by hearing the evidence of all parties at one hearing? If so, that weakens an application to sever.

5. Does the prejudice to the party applying, prejudice based on undue complication, delay or inconvenience, outweigh any benefit of matters being heard together, or outweigh any considerations related to the overall objective of the rules to ensure a just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every proceeding on its merits, including the avoidance of a multiplicity of proceedings for the benefits of litigants and having concern to congestion in the courts generally?

[69] Guidelines that focused attention more keenly on the efficacy of the trial process were helpfully laid out in O’Mara v. Son, Kim et al., 2007 BCSC 871[O’Mara] at para. 23:

1. whether the order sought will create a saving in pre-trial procedures;

2. whether there will be a real reduction in the number of trial days taken up by the trial being heard at the same trial;

3. whether a party may be seriously inconvenienced by being required to attend a trial in which the party may have a marginal interest;

4. whether there will be a real saving in expert’s time and witness fees;

5. whether one of the actions is at a more advanced stage than the other;

6. whether the order sought will result in delay of the trial of any one of the actions and, if so, whether any prejudice which a party might suffer as a result of that delay outweighs the potential benefits which a consolidated trial might otherwise have;

7. the possibility of inconsistent findings and common issues resulting from separate trials.

[70] Severance may well be appropriate where the determination of one issue will render another one moot: Lawrence v. ICBC, 2001 BCSC 1530[Lawrence].

[71] The judicial discretion to sever trials or hearings is to be exercised sparingly: Morrison Knudsen Co. v. British Columbia Hydro & Power Authority, 1972 CarswellBC 62, 24 D.L.R. (3d) 579 (S.C.); Lawrence at para. 43. The test for severance is not applied in a vacuum; it is to be considered against the backdrop of the nature of the particular case at hand: Wirtz v. Constantini, 137 D.L.R. (3d) 393, 1982 CarswellBC 588 (S.C.). Because the determination involves an individualized assessment of the unique case before the Court, there is no closed list of uniformly applied considerations that inform the exercise of the Court’s discretion.

47      The judge also identified specific principles relevant to the nature of the case before her. In particular, she recognized limitations on the powers of a committee and on the nature of claims that can properly be included in a counterclaim to a proof of will in solemn form proceeding. Citing Re: Langford and The Patients Property Act, 2000 BCSC 721, she said:

[77] There is no question but that as the executor named in the Impugned Wills, the PGT is entitled to bring the Proof of Will Action. On the surface, s. 24 of the PPA suggests that in its capacity as committee of Norman’s estate, the PGT would have the authority to defend against the other claims. However, in Re: Langford and The Patients Property Act, 2000 BCSC 721 [Re: Langford], the Court reasoned that the legislature could not have intended to invest a committee with all of the powers of an executor or administrator such as obtaining title to the deceased’s assets or winding up and distributing the estate of the deceased patient. It held that because s. 24 expressly contemplates that probate or administration will be taken out after a patient’s death, it is intended to be operative only in the intervening period. In the result, Re: Langford held that s. 24 simply authorizes a committee of a deceased patient to maintain the status quo of the deceased patient’s estate during the hiatus period pending the issuance of letters probate or administration.

And as to Clark v. Nash, [1986] B.C.J. No. 1655, 39 A.C.W.S. (2d) 375 (S.C.), aff’d [1987] B.C.J. No. 304, 3 A.C.W.S. (3d) 412 (C.A.), the judge reasoned:

[83] . . . there is case authority that has placed some limitation on the nature of claims that can properly be included in a counterclaim to a proof of will in solemn form proceeding. In Clark v. Nash, [1986] B.C.J. No. 1655 (S.C.) aff’d [1987] B.C.J. No. 304 (C.A.) [Clark], the Court held that the procedure and hearing involved in a proof of will in solemn form proceeding should be limited to the aspects of the will execution, testamentary capacity, want of knowledge and fraud. The Court reasoned that a counterclaim to vary a will that is alleged to be invalid is therefore premature, and hearing it at the same time or before the action involving the proof of the challenged will is neither just nor convenient

[84] Since its pronouncement, Clark has stood for the general proposition that it is improper to include a wills variation claim in an action for proof of will in solemn form on the footing that a valid will is a condition precedent to a variation proceeding. Although I believe that, on occasion, this Court has heard such claims together (presumably without being taken to Clark), Clark nonetheless strengthens the application to sever, at least vis-a-vis David’s claim to have the Impugned Wills varied.

Trevor Todd

Trevor Todd is one of the province’s most esteemed estate litigation lawyers. He has spent more than 40 years helping the disinherited contest wills and transfers – and win. From his Kerrisdale office, which looks more like an eclectic art gallery than a lawyer’s office, Trevor empowers claimants and restores dignity to families across BC. He is a mentor to young entrepreneurs and an art buff who supports starving artists the world over. He has an eye for talent and a heart for giving back.

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