As of June 1, anyone taking a small claims case involving $5,000 or less to court in British Columbia will go online instead of appearing in person before a judge at their local courthouse.
Of the approximately 11,000 small claims cases (under $25,000) filed in BC last year, about 40 per cent were under $5,000. Higher value cases will continue to go to court.
Typical small claims court cases involve consumer disputes, damage to personal property, and construction or small contractor issues. A large number of cases are also filed by payday loan companies, financial institutions, and cellphone providers trying to collect debts from consumers.
In 2015 and 2016, the Sechelt courthouse saw an average of 65 small claims cases per year.
Whether the new system will be an improvement depends on who you talk to.
Shannon Salter, Chair of the provincial Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), says that the goal is to make the process extremely simple. “The best way to empower people is to give them plain language legal information, free tools, and then design the process to make it easy to use, affordable, timely, efficient, and convenient.”
Salter pointed out that until now many people have not had easy access to legal services because they had to take time off work and travel to a courthouse to get service. The new system will be accessible 24/7 from anywhere via computer or smartphone at www.civilresolutionbc.ca
The process starts with the “Solution Explorer”, a set of tools – like letter templates – designed to help solve the problem without legal intervention. If the person can’t resolve their issue using these tools, they file an online application for dispute resolution. There is a fee for the service, but people with low income can apply for a fee waiver.
After the other party in the dispute is notified and given an opportunity to respond, the matter goes to a facilitator who works with both parties to reach an agreement. This stage can be handled via mail or telephone if people are not comfortable using a computer.
If a resolution is still not reached, the case goes to the tribunal for adjudication and a decision that is enforceable as a court order. (Tribunal members must have a law degree or equivalent and experience as an arbitrator or adjudicator.)
“It’s the first area of the justice system that’s been co-designed with the public,” said Salter, noting that the CRT has done extensive user testing and consultation. The CRT has been handling strata-related cases online since last year.
Lawyers, understandably, are less enthused.
James Mandick, a Halfmoon Bay lawyer who both brings and defends small claims cases, is concerned about people’s constitutional right to have legal representation. “Changing it to some kind of an online process where lawyers are not allowed seems very unworkable,” said Mandick, who handles about 10 cases a year in Sechelt.
Alison Sawyer, a Gibsons lawyer, also expressed caution, but noted that the old process was slow. Most claims were supposed to be settled within six months, but getting a settlement conference and then a trial date could take months. “Especially in high volume courts it could be quite a wait.”
The new system’s goal is to resolve cases in 60-90 days, though it remains to be seen if that goal can be met.
People who are unsure how to use the new system can obtain general information from the Legal Information Program at the Community Resource Centre in Sechelt. The Gibsons and Sechelt Public Libraries both provide free public access to computers. Donna McMahon