Federal Court judges will soon be empowered to short-circuit dubious court cases as part of a strategy to stem a wave of nuisance litigants who waste valuable court time.
The plan, hatched by a study group of judges, lawyers and court officials, would discourage vexatious litigants at the same time as it encourages self-represented litigants who pursue their cases diligently. The court's Rules Committee has approved all of the study group's 22 recommendations and they will be implemented in the coming months.
The study group found that nuisance litigants typically pursue a multitude of parallel proceedings and legal motions. They shower court offices with voluminous documentation and find numerous ways to obstruct court processes.
However, the group found that existing court rules impede the ability of a judge to step in to curb their excesses.
The move to strengthen the hand of judges comes at a time when high legal costs have prompted a deluge of litigants to act as their own lawyers.
"The number of self-represented litigants, some of whom are not willing to obey our rules, is increasing," said a judge who chaired the group, Mr. Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal. "This is a trend everywhere, not just in our courts."
The trend, Judge Stratas said in an interview, is driven both by the increasing legal costs and by the massive number of documents available to litigants on the Internet that can be entered as evidence.
"Some self-represented people are trying to play ball, trying to comply with our rules and procedures," he said. "But others are not … We need to develop new tools to manage abusive and disproportionate conduct by these litigants, and some others."
The Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal hear disputes that involve the federal government, its boards and tribunals. Cases typically involve family law, taxation, pensions, immigration, refugees and prison inmates.
The study group said that courts are a community resource that should not be tied up by mischief-makers.
"Just as we would expect those who repeatedly misuse or misbehave in parks, libraries, community halls and national museums to be excluded from those facilities, truly vexatious litigants in the Federal Courts system must be dealt with," it said.
The group also urged the creation of user-friendly, web-based information that will help legitimate litigants find their way through bewildering legal processes.
In a release, Chief Justice Paul Crampton of the Federal Court of Canada, said that the procedural changes, "when fully implemented, will make the Federal Courts a world leader in dealing with this difficult but urgent problem."
Judicial frustration with vexatious litigants has become increasingly visible.
Last September, Mr. Justice J.D. Rooke of Alberta Court of Queen's Bench issued an exasperated call to arms against legal "parasites" who hijack court proceedings with nonsensical motions and bizarre spiritual and legal principles of their own making.
In another ruling this fall, Mr. Justice Dale Parayeski of Ontario Superior Court, disparaged a self-represented litigant – Elizabeth Balanyk – for wasting vast amounts of court time.
"It is apparent that the respondent is obsessed with litigation," Judge Parayeski said. "She compared herself to Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa for her doggedness in protecting her perceived rights. She stated that she believes she was placed on Earth to make a difference by means of litigation."
Michelle Christopher, a University of Calgary law professor, said the judiciary has done a fine job of streamlining court procedures to make justice more accessible, but the problem of vexatious or ill-informed litigants keeps growing.
"When litigants present themselves with frivolous claims lacking legal merit and cloak their concerns with an air of reality, what they are really doing is no more than a modern version of the seventies sit-in protest," Prof. Christopher said.