Commencing a Claim

AuthorJanet Walker/Lorne Sossin
ProfessionOsgoode Hall Law School, York University/Faculty of Law, University of Toronto
When the decision is made to seek a resolution to a dispute by com-
mencing a claim in the courts, a number of other decisions must also be
made. This chapter addresses some of the key considerations ari sing at
the time of commencing a cl aim, including whether there i s a right to
seek relief from the courts for the h arm suffered, whether the plaintiff
or applicant is the person who is permitted to seek the relief requested,
whether the time allotted for commencing t he claim has passed, how
the defendant or respondent must be given t he notice of proceeding,
and how and when the defendant must respond.
To commence a cl aim, t he claimant must have a legally recog nized en-
titlement to do so. This is sometimes described as having a right of act ion.
The idea of needing to have a right of action can be traced to t he origins
of the common law. At that time, a civil claim was made through a plea to
the King in Court to order another of the King’s subjects to provide relief
for the harm caused. As the legal system developed, the King delegated
to judges the power to grant relief. The judges travelled throughout the
country to grant prescribed forms of relief based on strict instructions:
“If someone comes to you with x complaint, you may order y form of re-
Commencing a Cl aim 53
lief.” The judges’ mandate was not to consider any and all complaints and
fas hion appr opriate remedi es. It wa s much mor e rest ricted and formu laic
than that. The judge’s task was simply to determine whether the com-
plaint met the specif‌ications of the writ. If it did, the judge was mandated
to order the pre scribed relief. Over time, the writs and forms of action
increased in number and became more detailed. They grew so complex
that lawyers became indispensable to the system, but the fundamental
approach remained the same. The entire civil justice system at that time
might have been described as purely procedural. Justice was not all-em-
bracing. Relief was avai lable only where t he claim was cogni zable at law.
It w as not the c ase t hat, wher e ther e some one h ad su ffere d a wr ong, t here
was a r ight to claim relief. Rather, where there was no right to relief, by
inference, no wrong had occurred.1
Much has changed si nce those times. It sounds odd today to sug-
gest that a person who feels wronged might not be entitled to seek relief
from a court. However, it remains the case that not all forms of frustra-
tion and diff‌iculty entitle those who suffer t hem to seek compensation
in the courts. Not all sources of harm are recognized as wrongful in law
and not all harms give rise to a compensable loss. For ex ample, some-
one may dislike red cars but it would be sur prising to learn t hat there
was a legally recognized r ight to compensation if a neighbour kept one
parked in t he d riveway across the street. Some interests, such as t he
interest in being protected from the sight of red cars, are not legally
recognized and, therefore, do not give rise to a cause of action.
Similarly, someone may not like the par ticular fragrance used by a
co-worker, but if the use of fragrances has no known harmful health
effects, the preference for a fragrance-free workplace may not be a right
protected by law. However, this example is different from the previ-
ous one because, with the grow ing awareness that fragrances can h ave
harmful health effects on some people, and the entitlement to be pro-
tected from health hazards in the workplace, a right of action to seek
recovery for harm caused by a co-workers’ use of a fragrance may come
to be recognized as a legal entitlement.
In a further example, someone might discover with some irr itation
that a routine banking transaction involved an unauthorized charge
but the amount involved was negligible. As a result, even if t he entitle-
ment to recovery was, in principle, beyond doubt, as a practical matter,
it would not be feasible to seek relief through litigation because the cost
of doing so would exceed the amount likely to be obtained. At one time,
1 See H. Patrick Glen n, Legal Traditions of the World, 3d ed. (Oxford: Ox ford Uni-
versity Pre ss, 2007) at 225–31.
the un availability of recovery might have been regarded not just as a
practical matter but as a legal one as well. The principle was sometimes
described by t he Latin phra se: de minimus not curat lex or “the harm is
too small to warrant a cure.” (In this phrase, one m ight hear t he echo
of the old common law notion that where there was no relief there had
been no wrong.) In these circumstances, it would be said that the harm
was de minimus.
The situation i s less clear these days. While it rem ains true th at
there are some harms that are too small to warr ant a cure, in cases
where m any people have been a ffected by the same harm, it may be
possible to aggregate the claims in a class proceeding. This is discussed
in Chapter 6. It wil l probably always be the case t hat some h arms are
too small and affect too few people to warrant an individual cure, but in
cases where the collective impact on the public of some avoidable harm
is suff‌icient to make the claim economically feasible in the aggregate, it
will likely become the subject of a cla ss proceeding.
Where defendants are faced with claims for harms that are not rec-
ognized as giving r ise to a legal entitlement to relief, they may bri ng a
motion to strike t he pleading for failure to disclose a reasonable cause
of act ion. However, the standards for doing so caution courts not to
strike a pleading because the claim is a novel one. The potential for
pleadings to be struck i s discussed further in Chapter 9.
The nature of legal entitlements and causes of action are considered
in the var ious areas of substantive law, but a r ight of action, or the en-
titlement to seek compensation for a legally recognized harm, is def‌ined
and circumscrib ed further in ways that relate directly to the process of
civil litigation. The next two sections in this chapter examine two con-
straints on a r ight of action that need to be considered in commencing
a claim: the stand ing of a claimant to seek relief, and the time limits
within which a claim may b e commenced. This chapter a lso considers
the way in which the defendant or respondent must be served with the
notice of proceed ing, and the time allowed for serv ing the notice a nd
responding to it.
In addition to having suffered a wrong that the law recognize s as com-
pensable, the entitlement to pursue a right of action depends upon the
standing of a cl aimant to seek relief. What entitles one person and not
another to commence a claim for relief from a part icular wrong? The
obvious answer is that the person with standing to bring the claim s is

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