Father Who Paid $400K in Legal Fees to “Cause Financial Harm to the Mother and His Son” Ordered to Pay Mother’s Costs Too
If a father runs up almost $400,000 in legal costs – including nearly $75,000 in expert fees – in pursuit of a low-dollar-value victory in court, should this be considered in assessing legal costs later on?
In Jordan v Stewart, court was asked to allocate legal costs in connection with the parents’ dispute over whether the father’s obligation to pay child support for their now-20-something son should be terminated. The young man had been attending University in London, Ontario but when the father learned that he was switching to a college in Toronto, he applied to have child support cut off, on the basis that the young man would be independent and no longer be living with his mother in London. In fact, the father asked for the termination of his support obligation to be back-dated three years.
The father brought a motion to have the support obligation end; the mother wanted the father’s motion dismissed. Although the issues were relatively straightforward, the hearing took up several days of court time, and required expert evidence and scrutiny of the father’s income.
The father did not get the order he wanted, but the mother wasn’t fully vindicated either, since there were additional legal issues that were also addressed at the same time. Given those rather mixed results, the judge was challenged to apportion legal costs, which under Ontario civil procedure are usually (but not always) given to the winning party. So the court had to determine which of the parents had been the “successful” one in the proceeding so far.
The stakes were potentially high: The father had incurred about $373,000 in costs in preparation for certain proceedings, including almost $75,000 paid to an expert to provide an opinion on his income for child support purposes, for the years 2010 and 2011, based on various financial scenarios. But despite the staggering run-up of costs, the father was asking for only 25% of it from the mother – which was still just under $90,000.
The court rejected the father’s claim that he was the successful party, stating that his rationale “stretch[ed] the reality of the outcome.” Instead, the judge stated that “even if I found the father was somehow technically successful, I would award the mother costs.”
The judge’s stern stance against the father was explained by the following passages from the 130-paragraph ruling:
This case is another example of courts struggling to determine entitlement and quantum of costs. The costs issue is made more complex by the father’s willingness to spend approximately $400,000 in legal and expert fees. This amount is significantly disproportionate to any amount that he advances as his best possible financial outcome. The father also knew that, if successful, he probably would not recover the costs in any significant way from the mother as she has limited financial resources and appeared in court without counsel.
This case is an extreme example of a person who was prepared, as he has been in the past, to spend significant sums of money without concern for costs or outcome.
While I cannot conclude that the father in this case deceived the court in any manner, his willingness to spend money on legal and expert fees so out of proportion to any economic benefit defies logic. The reasonable conclusion is that the father was prepared to cause financial harm to the mother and his son even at incredible expense to himself. He certainly never expected to recover his costs [from her].
He does not seek to recover most of the significant fees he spent, a signal that the money was not a factor in his pursuit of the case or relevant to any resolution. He was prepared to spend more money than any financial benefit to him if he succeeded.
The judge also observed that the mother had made multiple reasonable offers: she had suggested mediation, and offered to accept reduced support. The judge found these offers were all “worthy of the father’s consideration”, and would have been far more financially beneficial to both parties than what transpired.
In the end, using the father’s own tally of his costs as a representative “measuring stick” of the fair compensation to which the mother should be entitled, the judge awarded her the nearly $90,000 in costs to be paid by the father, plus the $34,000 he already owed her.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Jordan v Stewart, 2013 ONSC 5037 (CanLII)