Can a Judge Go “Off the Map” When Making a Ruling?
In an interesting recent Court of Appeal case named Gomez v. McHale, a question arose as to whether a motion judge, asked to award an amount for equalization of net family property, was constrained to award only the exact dollar amount proposed by the spouse who succeeds on the motion, or whether the judge was entitled to craft a different monetary award that made sense in the circumstances.
The couple’s relationship had lasted about five years. Under s. 5(6) of the Ontario Family Law Act, a court can award un unequal amount for equalization of net family property in cases where awarding an equal amount would be “unconscionable”, in light of various factors including the length of time the couple had lived together.
They both brought summary judgment motions against each other, with the wife asking for one of two things:
• A straightforward equalization of net family property, which would result in her receiving $268,000 (which we will call “Option 1”); or
• An unequal division, to the tune of four-fifths of that amount, which was $214,000 (“Option 2”).
The husband, in contrast, wanted the either of the wife’s claims – whether under Option 1 or Option 2 – to be dismissed outright by the court.
Ultimately, a court granted the wife a third Option – but one that neither of them had asked for. For various reasons related to the specific facts, the court ordered the wife to receive an equalization payment of $60,000.
The wife appealed, claiming that the motion judge had strayed from the available choices presented at the motion hearing. In particular, the wife contended that the judge’s only available choices were to pick either Option 1 or 2, or possibly to grant her partial judgment in some amount, and direct that the rest of the issues be sent on to be resolved at a full trial.
The Court of Appeal disagreed. As that Court wrote:
Put bluntly, this is not the way motions for summary judgment, especially duelling motions, work. The motion judge was entitled to consider all the evidence and then apply the relevant statutory provision, s. 5(6) of the FLA, and determine both whether an unequal division was appropriate and, if so, the quantum of the unequal division. He was not limited to choosing one of the two amounts proposed by the appellant and, if he was inclined to reject them, referring the question of quantum on to a trial. … He was not limited to choosing only one of the appellant’s alternative positions.
The wife also claimed that the judge had made an error by not following a mathematical formula for calculating the unequal division of net family property (using the actual period of cohabitation as a percentage of the five-year period specified in s. 5(6) of the Family Law Act). The court disagreed: While a mathematical approach might help the court in some cases, it did not have to be applied in every single one.
In the end, the Appeal Court concluded that the motion judge’s final amount of equalization, set at $60,000, was fair and reasonable in view of all the circumstances, which included the fact that the wife had not made any significant contributions to the home during the period of cohabitation and marriage.
For the full text of the decision, see: