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Do Judges Need to Actually Give Reasons?

Do Judges Need to Actually Give Reasons?

For those of you “armchair lawyers” who like to follow real-life trials, watch TV crime shows, or even just read books by John Grisham, here’s an interesting question for you:

In law, can a litigant appeal a judicial ruling simply because the judge’s reasons were brief?

The answer is: Maybe.

The sparseness of the reasons given by the trial judge was among the grounds for appeal in the recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Filanovsky v. Filanovsky. A 45-year old woman had sued her parents for alleged physical and emotional abuse when she was a child, including violent blows to the face that left her with traumatic brain injuries.

After a 10-day trial in which the court considered evidence from the woman, her brother, various experts, and the parents themselves, the woman’s claims were dismissed.

She appealed and requested a new trial, with one of the grounds being that the judge failed to give adequate reasons to explain the reason her claim was dismissed.

The appeal court rejected this particular argument.

To begin with, the court conceded that prior decisions have established that a judge must give reasons:

1) to justify and explain the result;

2) to explain to the losing party why she lost;

3) to provide public accountability and to satisfy the public that justice has been done; and

4) to permit review by an appeal court.

However, the Appeal Court relied on another recent decision of its own called Dovbush v. Mouzitchka, where it had a chance to examine those requirements in detail, saying:

Trial judges are called upon to make difficult decisions, often in difficult circumstances. They preside as the particular dynamics of the trial unfold. Inadequate reasons therefore pose a particular challenge for appellate review.

On the one hand, as [Supreme Court of Canada justice] Rothstein J. noted in F.H. v. McDougall, … “an appeal court cannot intervene merely because it believes the trial judge did a poor job of expressing herself. Nor, is the failure to give adequate reasons a free-standing basis for appeal.”

However, the Appeal Court in Dovbush had pointed that in determining the issue of the reasons’ sufficiency,

…[I]t turns on the overarching principle of whether the reasons permit meaningful and effective appellate review. Appellate courts will take a contextual and functional approach to addressing whether reasons meet this standard. The exercise has been variously described as one of determining whether the reasons demonstrate: “the path taken by the trial judge through confused or conflicting evidence” … or that “the trial judge came to grips with the issues and explained sufficiently his … conclusions and the reasons and basis for them” … or, the “what” and the “why” of the result.

Returning to the Filanovsky case, the judge who dismissed the woman’s abuse claim against her parents had actually given lengthy reasons, in which she assessed credibility, analyzed all the witness’ evidence, and pointed out inconsistencies. The reasons as rendered by the judge did allow for a meaningful appellate review.

The woman had raised other grounds of appeal, and these were dismissed as well.

For the full text of the decisions, see:

Filanovsky v. Filanovsky, 2017 ONCA 28 (CanLII)

Dovbush v. Mouzitchka, 2016 ONCA 381 (CanLII)

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