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Editorial: What price justice?

Sometimes, the scales of justice seem unbalanced.
Sometimes, the scales of justice seem unbalanced. — 123RF Stock Photo

Everyone may deserve their day in court.

But can they afford it? That’s another question entirely — and it’s one, by the way, that can be turned into a weapon, if your pockets and your spite run deep enough.

Here’s a little cautionary tale from Ontario; the case may not matter much here, but the numbers sure do.

The case, a class-action lawsuit, ended up involving the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the beer-sales arm of three breweries, Brewers Retail, and the brewers themselves: Labatt, Molson and Sleeman Breweries.

The lawsuit was asking for a whopping $1.4 billion in damages, saying that beer drinkers and the food and beverage industry had been unjustly charged extra for beer since 2000.

The case was tossed out after just four days in court.

But that doesn’t mean it was in any way cheap: the group that launched the suit estimated its costs for the four days in court, including preparations, at $1.8 million.

Meanwhile, the brewers, Brewers Retail and the LCBO spent considerably more; those five, combined, spent more than $6.5 million.

There are winners in the whole case somewhere, but outside of the legal profession, it’s hard to see just where.

Since they were successful in defending the case, the brewers and their co-defendants were able to reclaim some of their court costs.

Judge Paul Perell — who in the past has said of class-action lawsuits that, “like a forest fire in this era of climate change, costs in class proceedings have gotten out of control” — awarded costs to the defendants totalling close to $2.2 million.

The group trying to launch the class action argued they shouldn’t have to pay costs at that level, because the case was relatively straightforward and in the public interest. The judge disagreed, saying, “Maybe on Jupiter a 14,000-page record assembled for the court (from the who knows how large a database examined for relevancy by the defendants) is ‘modest,’ but it is not modest on planet Earth.”

As to the public interest claim? “In my opinion, the case at bar, the case at bar was commercial litigation to relocate $3 billion of money belonging to the taxpayers of this province to a subset of Class Counsel and Class Member taxpayers who allegedly paid too much for beer as a result of a government policy that had been in existence for decades.”

Now, it might be an outlier, with big clients, huge amounts of money at stake and everything else.

It also may be the subject of further legal action.

But the sheer size of the legal spending involved in the case is staggering — for everyone involved, over $8.3 million in legal work, culminating in a mere four days of court action.

There are winners in the whole case somewhere, but outside of the legal profession, it’s hard to see just where.

Maybe that’s why the courts are, more and more, the exclusive preserve of those with deep pockets.

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