NL Supreme Court rules against summary trial in historical abuse case

A full trial is needed to thoroughly evaluate the credibility of the plaintiff's testimony: court

NL Supreme Court rules against summary trial in historical abuse case

The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador ruled that a case involving allegations of historical sexual abuse by a now-deceased priest at a boys' home in the 1980s will not proceed by summary trial due to the case's complexity.

The plaintiff claimed that the priest sexually assaulted him during his stay at the boys' home. The priest, who is deceased, faced no criminal charges regarding these allegations. The plaintiff also asserted that the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador is vicariously liable because the priest, as an authorized parish priest, had access to interact with the facility's residents.

The plaintiff argued that he met the evidentiary requirements for a summary trial. He relied on past case law to argue that the presented evidence, if left unchallenged, could establish vicarious liability of the province. On the other hand, the province contended that a summary trial was unsuitable for this case due to the necessity of a credibility assessment, which is best conducted through direct and cross-examination in a full trial. They argued that the passage of time and the lack of other evidence made cross-examination crucial to their defence.

The Supreme Court reviewed the application under Rule 17A, which allows for summary trials when there is no genuine issue for trial regarding a claim or defence. The court's analysis followed the decision tree established in a previous case.

The court found that the plaintiff had complied with the formal requirements of Rule 17A by presenting an adequate evidentiary basis for his claim. The province did not contest the adequacy of the plaintiff's evidence but focused on the appropriateness of a summary trial. The court determined that assessing the plaintiff's credibility was essential for resolving the case. Credibility assessments, especially in historical abuse cases, require the observation of witness demeanour during direct and cross-examination, which cannot be effectively achieved through written affidavits and transcripts alone.

The court noted that a full trial would provide a more comprehensive platform for evaluating the credibility of the plaintiff's testimony. The court referenced multiple factors favouring a full trial, including the serious and complex nature of the disputed issues, the significant time elapsed since the alleged events, and the potential for substantial personal injury awards.

The court concluded that the province must be allowed to test the plaintiff's credibility fully in a full trial setting. The court emphasized that summary trials are inappropriate for cases requiring in-depth credibility assessments and where the stakes are high due to the severity of the allegations and potential damages.

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