Severance of a Trial

In civil suits severance refers to the division of a trial into two or more parts. Plaintiffs in civil suits base their cases on a cause of action—facts that give the plaintiff the right to sue. For reasons of judicial economy, the court may order the lawsuit divided into two or more independent causes of action.

For example the case law indicates that a wills variation action should be severed from an action that also includes a claim that the will is invalid. The courts have stated that the validity of the will should firstly be determined before the wills variation claim is heard and have ordered severance in such situations.

Whether or not to sever part of a trial is within the discretion of this Court and the scope of the Court’s discretion must be interpreted in light of the overall object embodied in Rule 1-3 to “secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every proceeding on its merits”: Kitsul v. Slater Vecchio LLP, 2015 BCSC 1394 at paras. 22–23.

The principles relevant to the exercise of discretion under Rule 12-5(67) were summarized in British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band, 2007 BCSC 1014 at para. 69 (citing Nguyen v. Bains, 2001 BCSC 1130 at para. 11), aff’d 2008 BCCA 107:

a. A judge’s discretion to sever an issue is probably not restricted to extraordinary or exceptional cases. However, it should not be exercised in favour of severance unless there is a real likelihood of a significant saving in time and expense.
b. Severance may be appropriate if the issue to be tried first could be determinative in that its resolution could put an end to the action for one or more parties.
c. Severance is most appropriate when the trial is by judge alone.
d. Severance should generally not be ordered when the issue to be tried is interwoven with other issues in the trial. This concern may be addressed by having the same judge hear both parts of the trial and ordering that the evidence in the first part applies to the second part.
e. A party’s financial circumstances are one factor to consider in the exercise of the discretion.
f. Any pre-trial severance ruling will be subject to the ultimate discretion of the trial judge.

The Public Guardian and Trustee for BC v Johnston 2016 BCSC 1388 has an excellent review of the law as to when the courts will order that court actions be severed from the other and heard separately.

This decision was upheld by the BCCA in 2017 BCCA 59.

In that action there were claims that the will was invalid and alternatively in the same action , that if the will was valid, that it should then be varied as per wills variation provisions.

The application was to sever the two claims from the other and the court ordered that the trial firstly be held on whether the will is valid, and then after that trial, if necessary, the wills variation claim would be tried.

[67] Rules 22-5(6) and (7) state:


(6) If a joinder of several claims or parties in a proceeding may unduly complicate or delay the trial or hearing of the proceeding or is otherwise inconvenient, the court may order separate trials or hearings or make any other order it considers will further the object of these Supreme Court Civil Rules.
Separating counterclaim or third party claims

(7) If a counterclaim or a third party proceeding ought to be disposed of by a separate proceeding, the court may so order.

The key factors engaged in a general sense on an application to sever were canvassed in Schaper v. Sears Canada, 2000 BCSC 1575 (CanLII) [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, 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 (CanLII) [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.

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

The judicial discretion to sever trials or hearings is to be exercised sparingly: Morrison Knudsen Co. v. British Columbia Hydro & Power Authority, 1972 Carswell B.C. 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, 1982 CanLII 282 (BC SC), 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.

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