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Unfair or Indefensible – Costs Against Children’s Aid Society?

There is a presumption that a successful party is entitled to the costs of a motion, enforcement, case or appeal (Ontario Family Law Rules, R. 24(1)). There is, however, no such presumption for costs in a child protection case (Rule 24(2)). Does that mean that a successful parent can never obtain a court order against a children’s aid society? Let us delve a little further.

The lack of presumption for costs is perfectly understandable. The Courts have been hesitant to impose court orders against children’s aid societies as they are faced with the difficult statutory duty of protecting children from harm and the law tells us that they should not be punished (through cost orders) for errors of judgment. A further reason for courts rarely awarding costs against societies stems from the view that societies should not be discouraged from taking action because of the risk of an adverse cost order.

Rule 24(2) does not give children’s aid societies the authority to behave with impunity though. The courts have (and will) order costs against children’s aid societies in limited circumstances. For example, the 2013 matter of Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto v. SSB awarded costs to the mother and Office of the Children’s Lawyer for the procedural failings of the CCAST. This case affirms the courts’ approach in awarding costs against children’s aid societies in that society will not be shielded from costs where its behaviour is “unfair or indefensible or where exceptional circumstances exist”.

In SSB the CCAST sought disclosure of “clinical investigation notes” from the OCL. The OCL claimed that the requested documents were subject to solicitor-client privilege and therefore could not be disclosed as the disclosure would amount to a serious breach of trust between the OCL and the children. The prevailing concern was that the CCAST had sought to obtain the privileged documents on three separate occasions (only to withdraw their motion before a decision could be delivered) and had put the mother and OCL to considerable expense in defending the motions. The judge considered that the repeated attempts to obtain disclosure was tantamount to an abuse of process and verged on acting in bad faith. The judge, most helpfully, summarized the responsibility of the CCAST as follows [at paragraph 12]:

… Like any other litigant, society must conduct itself according to the rules. It is given broad investigative scope, and cannot and should not be liable for costs for actions it takes in good faith in its duty to investigate cases. That, however, does not give a society licence to ignore the general rules of procedural fairness. When it does, it should be liable in costs.

The CCAST matter also made reference to the 2005 decision of Children’s Aid Society of Niagara Region v. B. (C.), which provides guidance for the circumstances when children’s aid societies should and should not be liable for costs. These can be summarized as follows [paragraphs 89-100]:

1. Bad Faith Not Required: To attract an adverse award of costs, a children’s aid society need not have acted in bad faith;

2. Fairness: Costs may be awarded against a society, “where it conducts itself… in a way where it would be perceived by ordinary persons as having acted unfairly“;

3. Indefensible Behaviour: Many cases hold that a children’s aid society should only be visited with an adverse award of costs where it has taken a step or position that is “indefensible“, ie. “admitting of no defense”.

4. Exceptional Circumstances: There is a line of decisions holding that costs should not be awarded against a society “unless exceptional circumstances exist”;

5. Error in Judgment not sufficient to attract costs: A society should not be punished for a mere error of judgment (an error of judgment can truly arise only where one has considered all courses of action reasonably available at the time);

6. Society Not to Be Dissuaded by Costs: A society should not be dissuaded from its statutory mandate by costs considerations;

7. Society to Re-assess Its Position: A children’s aid society must be even-handed and act in good faith. To this end, a society must be prepared to re-assess its position as an investigation unfolds and more information becomes known;

8. Accountability: “Children’s aid societies must be accountable” for the manner in which it investigates a case and in the way it chooses to litigate that case (one method of achieving accountability is through costs sanctions);

The judge in CASNR tells us that a society can attract an adverse costs award where it fails in any of the following seven areas (paragraph 102):

1. Investigation before apprehension;

2. Continued investigation after apprehension;

3. Consideration of all appropriate protective measures;

4. Formation of a fair and defensible position;

5. Reassessment of that position as circumstances warrant;

6. Use of properly trained workers; and

7. Accessing independent experts in the field of child psychology.

This more critical approach adopted by some courts should provide some modest encouragement to parents who have been subjected to biased investigations or litigation undertaken by a children’s aid society where the C.A.S. actions were patently unfair or indefensible. These factors should be relevant not only to a costs determination but also to the expected standard of care to which child protection authority must adhere. Holding these agencies accountable to such standards should hopefully be encouraged by the case management judge as the case unfolds.

If you have a matter where a children’s aid society has acted unfairly, or indefensibly or there are exceptional circumstances, you may benefit from a consultation with our experienced child welfare lawyers.

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