The substance over form principle appears in many areas of law. The Court is concerned with the essence of the matter before it regardless of the label that may be used by one of more parties. There may be advantages to one party by labeling the relationship as X as opposed to Y or to labeling the issue as A instead of B. If we can define the issue, sometimes that might work to a party’s favour depending on how the issue is worded. But here again , substance prevails, as the Courts taking into account all relevant factors will be very interested in getting to the heart of the matter. The “labeled” issue by one party must coincide with what really is in dispute not what a party knows he or she can successfully advocate. Collateral issues add to the time and expense of a lawsuit and parties are left to drift in the legal forest without any real compass. Bearing in mind what really is in dispute and how you are going to prove it, will go a long way to navigating legal terrain.
Part of your navigation through legal terrain may involve all sorts of legal documents. In litigation, there are notices, court forms, actions, applications ,factums and a myriad of other court documents/forms to deal with different aspects of litigation. The best navigation tool here will be to have your substance and form work in harmony. Form is important as it conveys your credibility, your professionalism and your knowledge/skill. So law is not just about Substance trumping form. To get to your litigation destination, the best path will be not just to hope the substance over form principle will carry the day but rather substance working in harmony with form from the outset until you reach your destination.
Although , substance often trumps form when it has to facilitate justice, the two applied in harmony will help you better navigate the legal forest. It is true the forms and court documents don’t mean much if they don’t contain the substance but attention to both the form and the substance and ensuring they are working together to best present your case in the best possible light is a useful guiding light from the very beginning of a lawsuit to its end whether by court order or settlement.
William Poulos, Barrister
* This blog is not intended to be legal advice. Should you require legal advice, a lawyer should be consulted to advise of the specific circumstances of your case.