Civil Litigation - Costs - History. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band
In British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band (SCC, 2003) the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the history of costs in the common law system:
(1) Traditional Costs Principles — Indemnifying the Successful Party
19 The jurisdiction of courts to order costs of a proceeding is a venerable one. The English common law courts did not have inherent jurisdiction over costs, but beginning in the late 13th century they were given the power by statute to order costs in favour of a successful party. Courts of equity had an entirely discretionary jurisdiction to order costs according to the dictates of conscience (see M. M. Orkin, The Law of Costs (2nd ed. (loose-leaf)), at p. 1-1). In the modern Canadian legal system, this equitable and discretionary power survives, and is recognized by the various provincial statutes and rules of civil procedure which make costs a matter for the court’s discretion.
20 In the usual case, costs are awarded to the prevailing party after judgment has been given. The standard characteristics of costs awards were summarized by the Divisional Court of the Ontario High Court of Justice in Re Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth and Hamilton-Wentworth Save the Valley Committee, Inc. (1985), 1985 CanLII 1957 (ON SC), 51 O.R. (2d) 23, at p. 32, as follows:
(1) They are an award to be made in favour of a successful or deserving litigant, payable by the loser.21 The characteristics listed by the court reflect the traditional purpose of an award of costs: to indemnify the successful party in respect of the expenses sustained either defending a claim that in the end proved unfounded (if the successful party was the defendant), or in pursuing a valid legal right (if the plaintiff prevailed). Costs awards were described in Ryan v. McGregor (1925), 1925 CanLII 460 (ON CA), 58 O.L.R. 213 (App. Div.), at p. 216, as being “in the nature of damages awarded to the successful litigant against the unsuccessful, and by way of compensation for the expense to which he has been put by the suit improperly brought”.
(2) Of necessity, the award must await the conclusion of the proceeding, as success or entitlement cannot be determined before that time.
(3) They are payable by way of indemnity for allowable expenses and services incurred relevant to the case or proceeding.
(4) They are not payable for the purpose of assuring participation in the proceedings. [Emphasis in original.]
(2) Costs as an Instrument of Policy
22 These background principles continue to govern the law of costs in cases where there are no special factors that would warrant a departure from them. The power to order costs is discretionary, but it is a discretion that must be exercised judicially, and accordingly the ordinary rules of costs should be followed unless the circumstances justify a different approach. For some time, however, courts have recognized that indemnity to the successful party is not the sole purpose, and in some cases not even the primary purpose, of a costs award. Orkin, supra, at p. 2-24.2, has remarked that:
The principle of indemnification, while paramount, is not the only consideration when the court is called on to make an order of costs; indeed, the principle has been called “outdated” since other functions may be served by a costs order, for example to encourage settlement, to prevent frivolous or vexations [sic] litigation and to discourage unnecessary steps.23 The indemnification principle was referred to as “outdated” in Fellowes, McNeil v. Kansa General International Insurance Co. (1997), 1997 CanLII 12208 (ON SC), 37 O.R. (3d) 464 (Gen. Div.), at p. 475. In this case the successful party was a law firm, one of whose partners had acted on its behalf. Traditionally, courts applying the principle of indemnification would allow an unrepresented litigant to tax disbursements only and not counsel fees, because the litigant could not be indemnified for counsel fees it had not paid. Macdonald J. held that the principle of indemnity remained a paramount consideration in costs matters generally, but was “outdated” in its application to a case of this nature. The court should also use costs awards so as to encourage settlement, to deter frivolous actions and defences, and to discourage unnecessary steps in the litigation. These purposes could be served by ordering costs in favour of a litigant who might not be entitled to them on the view that costs should be awarded purely for indemnification of the successful party.
24 Similarly, in Skidmore v. Blackmore (1995), 1995 CanLII 1537 (BC CA), 2 B.C.L.R. (3d) 201, the British Columbia Court of Appeal stated at para. 28 that “the view that costs are awarded solely to indemnify the successful litigant for legal fees and disbursements incurred is now outdated”. The court held that self-represented lay litigants should be allowed to tax legal fees, overruling its earlier decision in Kendall v. Hunt (No. 2) (1979), 1979 CanLII 763 (BC CA), 16 B.C.L.R. 295. This change in the common law was described by the court as an incremental one “when viewed in the larger context of the trend towards awarding costs to encourage or deter certain types of conduct, and not merely to indemnify the successful litigant” (para. 44).
25 As the Fellowes and Skidmore cases illustrate, modern costs rules accomplish various purposes in addition to the traditional objective of indemnification. An order as to costs may be designed to penalize a party who has refused a reasonable settlement offer; this policy has been codified in the rules of court of many provinces (see, e.g., Supreme Court of British Columbia Rules of Court, Rule 37(23) to 37(26); Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194, Rule 49.10; Manitoba Queen’s Bench Rules, Man. Reg. 553/88, Rule 49.10). Costs can also be used to sanction behaviour that increases the duration and expense of litigation, or is otherwise unreasonable or vexatious. In short, it has become a routine matter for courts to employ the power to order costs as a tool in the furtherance of the efficient and orderly administration of justice.
26 Indeed, the traditional approach to costs can also be viewed as being animated by the broad concern to ensure that the justice system works fairly and efficiently. Because costs awards transfer some of the winner’s litigation expenses to the loser rather than leaving each party’s expenses where they fall (as is done in jurisdictions without costs rules), they act as a disincentive to those who might be tempted to harass others with meritless claims. And because they offset to some extent the outlays incurred by the winner, they make the legal system more accessible to litigants who seek to vindicate a legally sound position. These effects of the traditional rules can be connected to the court’s concern with overseeing its own process and ensuring that litigation is conducted in an efficient and just manner. In this sense it is a natural evolution in the law to recognize the related policy objectives that are served by the modern approach to costs.