Editorial: Dispute over inches not worth court’s time

Seven years after it lost its bid to enforce building standards related to handrails and stairwells against a west Toronto apartment building, the City of Toronto was back in court trying to do so once again on the basis of an updated bylaw.

The first time around in 2005, the city lost given that the rules in place exempted older buildings (the property in question dates back to 1958). So when it removed that exemption in 2008, an inspector issued an identical compliance order against the building. The company, Rexlington Heights Ltd., then appealed to a city committee, which rescinded the inspector’s order. The case landed back in court this month as the city appealed the committee’s decision.

It’s worth noting that the standards at issue involve relatively minor discrepancies. Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan, in summarizing the findings from the 2005 ruling in his Jan. 10 decision in City of Toronto v. Rexlington Heights Ltd., noted the issue “amounts to a matter of inches.” When it came to the handrails, for example, they’re about four centimetres shorter than the standards require. In fact, the 2005 ruling found the property “to be in substantial compliance with then-current property standards,” wrote Morgan.

So when the city relaunched litigation based on the 2008 removal of the exemption, Morgan faced a number of legal arguments. Was the case, for example, res judicata? Alternatively, did it amount to an abuse of process given that the standards in question involved essentially the same set of facts? As Morgan noted, “The respondent is still the same inch or two from strict compliance that it was in 2005.”

The city, of course, had a viable argument that issue estoppel didn’t apply since it was now seeking enforcement of new rules. But in his wisdom, Morgan found against the city as allowing the appeal to proceed “would amount to an abuse of the court’s process.”

“Judicial resources were used to positive effect on this municipal code compliance question in 2005 Rexlington; to expend them again can only reduce the efficiency and fairness of that result,” he wrote.

“It does not always occur, but where the saving rather than the expending of judicial resources results in more rather than less fairness, it is in everyone’s interest to avoid the unnecessary proceeding.”

In this case, Morgan has issued a fair and logical decision that should give pause to those tempted to follow the city’s line of thinking. There’s simply no need to devote more of the court’s time to such a minor issue. When the case involves issues of little practical significance, judicial economy demands that we not spend even more time on them as there are more important matters to deal with.
Glenn Kauth

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