Summary judgment motions are a procedural tool allowing litigants to obtain judgment or a final determination of a claim or defence without having to go through a full trial. Historically, summary judgment rules were only available in a limited set of circumstances. More recently however, a combination of the 2010 amendments to Rule 20 of the Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 20 Amendments”) and the Supreme Court decision in Hryniak v. Mauldin1 has resulted in dramatic change to the availability of motions for summary judgment and a lowering of the threshold for success.
With the Rule 20 Amendments, judges were given additional powers on summary judgment motions to weigh evidence, evaluate credibility and draw reasonable inferences from the evidence being presented. This represented a shift from the "no genuine issue for trial" approach to a "no genuine issue requiring a trial" test.2
The shift further provided judges a more efficient procedure to resolve civil disputes by expanding fact-finding powers and providing increased discretion. The important distinction here is that although there may be appropriate issues for trial, these issues may not require a trial.3 The new rule with its enhanced fact-finding powers shows that a traditional trial is no longer the default procedure.4 Summary judgment rules can now more than ever be used to dispose of a claim or defence where it can be shown there is no genuine issue and that a trial is not necessary.5 It can also be used to expedite and avoid unnecessary trials which in turn result in reduced legal fees to clients.
The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Hryniak6 created a shift in the way summary judgment motions are used and added further clarity to the Rule 20 amendments. Hryniak established the following framework outlining how judges should approach summary judgment:
(1) A judge hearing a summary judgment motion should first determine if there is a genuine issue requiring trial based on only the evidence filed by the parties and without the use of the new fact-finding powers;
(2) If there appears to be a genuine issue requiring a trial, the judge need determine if the need for a trial can be avoided by using the new powers.7 Then, the judge, at his or her own discretion, can use these powers as long as their use will lead to a fair and just result and will ultimately serve the goals of affordability and proportionality in light of the litigation as a whole;
(3) Finally, if the Judge is unable to grant summary judgment, efforts should be made to salvage the resources that have already been invested and ensure that the case progresses expediently.8
After a summary judgment motion has been heard a judge can either grant the motion, dismiss the motion (entitling the responding party to costs) or grant summary judgment in favour of the respondent.
A summary judgment motion is available if there is enough evidence to justly and fairly adjudicate the dispute. Summary judgment motions can in some circumstances be a more affordable, timely and proportionate procedure preferred to that of a trial, however, summary judgment motions have their own risks and benefits. There is no fixed formula for success with either option. Oftentimes it is left up to the lawyers to determine, based on their own risk analysis, what would be the best way to proceed.
In some cases, summary judgment motions can be an answer for litigants who can’t afford the cost and time commitment of a traditional trial. Rule 20.01 allows for a party to move for a summary judgment motion once the defence or notice of motion have been served. This can allow litigants to avoid the added legal costs associated with examination for discoveries, mediation and/or other motions that may be brought forward in the normal course of a trial.
Prior to the Rule 20 amendments, summary judgment motions were used in few cases as a tool to only eliminate unmeritorious claims. Summary judgment motions can no longer be considered an exceptional remedy. For the reasons provided by the Supreme Court in Hryniak, these motions are now used as an alternative form of adjudication in civil matters and should now be included in the list of dispute resolution choices at a lawyer’s disposal. Most importantly, clients need to also be aware of the availability of summary judgment motions as a proportionate, cost-effective, fair and just alternative tool that can be used in order to resolve disputes.
1 Hryniak v. Mauldin,  1 S.C.R. 87 (“Hryniak”)
2 Healey v. Lakeridge Health Corporation, 2010 CarswellOnt 556, para. 23
4 Hryniak,  1 S.C.R. 87, para.
5 Kobilke v. Jeffries, 2014 CarswellOnt 5962 at para. 21
6 Hryniak,  1 S.C.R. 87
7 Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194, Rules 20.04 (2.1) and (2.2)
8 Pammett v. 1230174 Ontario Inc., 2014 ONSC 2447, para. 25.