In British Columbia, most disputes involving less than $25,000 are resolved through Small Claims Court. Unfortunately many Small Claims litigants find this process time consuming and difficult to navigate without a lawyer, despite efforts to make it easier for parties to represent themselves and quickly settle their disputes through negotiation. Even with these efforts, Small Claims cases can take over a year to go to trial, if the case does not resolve at the mandatory settlement conference. In response to these problems, some have called for an expedited administrative process to deal with smaller disputes in a timelier manner, and without all of the formalities and rules of a traditional court proceeding. In response to these concerns British Columba enacted the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act [SBC 2012] c. 25 (the “Act”).
The Act establishes a Civil Resolution Tribunal (the “CRT”) that would provide an accelerated process for resolving minor strata property disputes and civil disputes up to $10,000. Initial tests of the tribunal process using a voluntary model showed low adoption, and so the process was made mandatory. The actual implementation however has been slow, and the Act is not yet fully implemented. In July 2016 the CRT began accepting strata disputes, and the current plan appears to be that in 2017 the CRT will begin accepting civil disputes up to $10,000.
Our firm regularly conducts Small Claims cases on behalf of our clients, and we are actively monitoring the development of the CRT so that we can advise our clients regarding this new dispute resolution process.
The Act contains a number of provisions that will make the CRT process very different from the traditional Small Claims Court process. Section 18 of the Act states that a tribunal proceeding is to be conducted with as little formality and technicality, and as much speed as is possible under the Act, the Rules, and with a proper consideration of the issues in the dispute.
The First Major Difference
Most, if not all, CRT proceeding will be conducted over the internet. Section 19 of the Act specifies that the tribunal may use electronic communication tools to conduct all or part of a proceeding. Courts have already begun to adopt online communication tools like video conferencing, but such methods are the exception rather than the rule. The CRT will change this, but it is not yet clear how the CRT intends to deal with parties who do not have internet access or who are not familiar with computers. One only has to sit through one attempted video conference that experiences technical difficulties to discover how quickly technology can malfunction, even with technologically sophisticated parties.
The Second Major Difference
Lawyers will only participate in CRT hearings under limited circumstances. Section 20 sets out that generally the parties are expected to represent themselves. There are exceptions that allow lawyers to act in CRT hearings when their client is a child or mentally impaired, when the rules otherwise permit, or when the tribunal deems it in the interests of justice and fairness.
The Possible Effects
Naturally lawyers are concerned about any quasi-judicial process that limits the rights of the parties to retain trained legal counsel. This is not a concern that is born out of self-interest. Disputes under $10,000 are rarely a profitable endeavor for a lawyer. The concern is that lawyers often play a vital role in negotiating matters, keeping the parties calm, and ensuring that the process runs smoothly. Lawyers also help muster the evidence and present it in an organized and compelling manner to secure the best possible result for their clients. Without lawyers involved in the process, the tribunal itself will have to accomplish these tasks, as well as adjudicating the dispute. If the tribunal fails to fill this void, the inevitable reality is that some parties will suffer from the lack of legal counsel.
It is too soon to tell how the CRT process will actually be implemented, but we are cautiously observing the development of this new process in order to monitor any potential impact on our clients. If you have any questions, as always, contact us here at Velletta & Company!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cadeyrn Christie is a civil litigation lawyer and business lawyer with Velletta & Company. A former tradesperson, business owner, and high performance athlete, Cadeyrn focuses his practice on providing dynamic representation to individuals and businesses.