Friday 16 February 2024

Running Your Own Trial as an Articling Student

image from Freepik

I’ll always remember the day when I stepped into the managing partner’s office, and he said, “Nick, you’re going to trial.” A rush of adrenaline and nerves flushed through my body.

This was a two-day small claims court trial where I was responsible for defending an action brought by homeowners against a general contractor.

Half the battle was trying to understand the nuts and bolts of construction practices. I had to spend some time Googling basic carpentry, plumbing and electrical work to familiarize myself with industry standards and Code requirements. You think I would be a handyman by now!

On the legal side of things, I had to work out a case theory. To start with, I read the whole file and jotted down notes about things I felt were important. I did this more times than I care to admit, but I wanted to ensure that I understood the ins and outs of the case and was fully prepared.

The days turned into weeks of trial prep. Countless hours were spent reviewing contracts, emails, photos and invoices to piece together the case like a puzzle. I had to think strategically about what evidence I wanted to introduce as exhibits to support our defence. This became a lot easier once I finally had my theory of the case after reviewing the law--a homeowner must give a contractor a reasonable opportunity to remediate any alleged deficiencies in its work before claiming damages. This is what I built the case around.

The day finally came. I walked into the courthouse with my banker's box full of evidence, a book of authorities, and a list of questions I prepared for the witnesses. I had never been so nervous in my life. However, I felt more settled once things got underway. I thought, I know the case now I just have to defend it.

Throughout the two-day small claims trial, I had the opportunity to make an opening statement by setting out a roadmap for the deputy judge, cross-examine witnesses, engage in direct examination of our own witnesses, make evidentiary objections where I saw fit, and make closing submissions to the deputy judge by tying the evidence together with the law.

The most important lesson I learned from this experience is that you need to be attentive and adaptable throughout the trial and change your strategy at times, depending on the answers given by witnesses. For example, I had to cross-examine a witness on the fly that I did not have any questions prepared for based on new evidence that came to light that I knew I had to challenge. I asked briefly for the Court’s indulgence and then started my cross, which felt natural because I had my theory and knew what to question the witness about.

The deputy judge reserved his decision. Regardless of the result, I feel proud and confident knowing I was trusted to put forth the best possible defence for the client. I now have my first trial under my belt, and it only took being an articling student for it to happen.

by Nicholas T.

Friday 5 January 2024

Learning the Ropes: My First Settlement Conference

image from Pexel Mohamed_hassan

As an articling student, you can assume day-to-day carriage of your own small claims court matters. This provides a great opportunity for you to understand the “big picture” of the litigation process by working on a file from start to finish.

One small claims case I was working on involved the defence of a negligence claim brought against a medical professional.

The first step was to prepare a defence. Because the timeline to respond to the Plaintiff’s Claim was approaching, we did not want to risk being noted in default by the court.

Litigation keeps you on your toes by constantly changing your schedule; therefore, it is important to know the timelines outlined in the Rules so you do not miss deadlines. However, it is equally important to be familiar with the SCJ Practice Directions because procedures vary based on where the proceeding will occur. You want to ensure your materials are accepted by the relevant court.

Once this was done, I prepared an initial opinion and budget for the client. At first, I thought this would be a daunting task. I had a general understanding of the standard of care medical professionals are held to; however, I did not go to medical school. How could I decipher medical terminology and procedures? Thankfully, all I needed was my legal background and guidance from the supervising lawyer to draft an opinion regarding exposure on liability and damages. I even took it to another level by recommending the next steps to the client.

The next thing I knew, a settlement conference was scheduled. These are court appearances with all parties where a deputy judge gives an opinion on the claim in an attempt to resolve the matter or at least narrow down the issues.

The day of, I was nervous because I did not know what to expect. What if I was asked something I did not have an answer for? Nonetheless, I felt prepared because I knew the facts of the case and had brief notes on the legal submissions I would make.

At the end of the day, the claim settled! This was a great feeling because it hinged on the legal analysis provided to the client and submitted to the court. Nothing feels better than a deputy judge agreeing with your view of the law. Now, I feel more confident in tackling my next court appearance. Good thing, because I am appearing at another settlement conference at the end of the month.