Can Some Family Law Matters Be Taken to Small Claims Court?

The question of whether separated common-law spouses could have some if their outstanding concerns handled in Small Claims Court rather than having to take the matter to Family Law Court was decided in a 2012 Ontario Superior Court of Justice judgment, Matteau v. Johnson.[1] In this instance, the couple had a roughly three-year common-law relationship. The woman filed a Small Claims Court action against the man after their separation to get the money she claimed he owed to her as per a verbal agreement.

At an initial hearing, the man argued that the woman’s Small Claims suit should be dismissed because the court lacked jurisdiction to handle the matter because it actually related to Family Law. The woman was permitted to continue wit the claim and take the necessary procedures to arrange a date for trial after the first judge who heard the case did not concur with the man’s position.

The man took the position that the woman’s claim was supported by either a purported oral cohabitation agreement or the principles of constructive trusts, both of which are Family Law issues, in his appeal of the judge’s decision. Additionally, the man argued that the constructive trust claim was really a way to get relief in equity, which was outside the scope of what the Small Claims Court was permitted to do. The woman, on the other hand, contended that although the parties were cohabitating, it was neither real cohabitation in the family law sense nor a common-law relationship because she was still legally married to another man during the same period. She said that the verbal agreement pertaining to the debt for the living costs could not constitute a cohabitation agreement under the Family Law Act since she could not have two spouses.

The man’s argument was rejected by the court hearing the appeal. It is true that this was a common-law partnership, and in the absence of a written agreement, the sole claim for property or debt between common-law partners is based on the idea of constructive trust, which is a subject of family law. However, there was no purpose in making the woman take the contract portion of her claim to a different court if she wished to argue both claims. Moreover, the notion that the Small Claims Court did in fact have jurisdiction to provide equitable relief was further supported by recent case law. This case demonstrates the Small Claims Court’s utility in resolving disputes between two people who used to live together over a basic contract disagreement that appears to have family law overtones.

[1] Matteau v. Johnson, 2012 ONSC 1179