Can a Judge Reject a Settlement?
The Court often challenges litigants to work together towards a settlement in an effort to save the parties, and the Court, time and resources. For the parties a settlement can save time, money, and heartache, but is it always a given that a Judge will accept it?
In a somewhat exceptional case, a Trial Judge in Ontario rejected a settlement arrived at during the course of a Trial and ordered the Trial to proceed. This may seem perverse – what right does a Court have to interfere in the agreed-to arrangements of parties who certainly know the realities of their situation much more intimately than any Court, or lawyer for that matter? However, the Court does have the jurisdiction to reject a settlement agreement, particularly in cases where such settlement is determined not to be in the best interests of children.
In the case of Richardson v Richardson, 2019 ONCA 983, the Court was tasked with hearing a mobility application by the mother to relocate the children from Niagara to Ottawa, Ontario. During the course of the trial, the parties negotiated minutes of settlement which would permit the mother to relocate the children, but which gave the father final decision-making authority. The Trial Judge rejected the settlement without reasons and the Trial proceeded.
On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed the Trial Judge’s authority to reject a settlement on the basis of being adverse to the best interests of the children and confirmed that rejection of this settlement in the circumstances was not an error. However, the Court was careful to note that settlement is generally to be promoted and encouraged, and in rejecting a settlement on the basis of the children’s best interests, a Court must also consider the general benefits to children that flow from parents resolving their disputes through compromise.
This case is certainly an exception to the norm – generally, the Court will accept a settlement, and particularly if both parties have counsel. However, it is also an important reminder to individuals and to lawyers that when they put their dispute before the Court, the Court will retain the jurisdiction to resolve the dispute in a manner that they determine meets the best interests of the children.