Small claims cases under $5

B.C.’s online small claims court a world first

Removal of impaired driving, minor civil cases from courts improves efficiency, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton says

B.C.’s online Civil Resolution Tribunal has been resolving strata property disputes since last summer, and on June 1 it will expand to take on small claims disputes involving less than $5,000.

“This is the first online dispute resolution service in the world which is tied into the public civil justice system.” B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said. “Everyone is watching us on this one.”

It’s the latest step in B.C.’s effort to increase efficiency of the court system. With small claims up to $5,000 diverted to the tribunal, the limit for small claims lawsuits in provincial court will go up on June 1, from $25,000 to $35,000. Disputes over amounts greater than that are heard in B.C. Supreme Court.

The system allows people to work through a step-by-step online system to resolve disputes over debt, damage, recovery of personal property or specific performance of agreements, without appearing in court.

The first stage is a “guided pathway” that evaluates and suggests ways to settle the dispute, and most people don’t go further, Anton said. If there is still a dispute, the second stage is referral to a mediator.

The final stage is adjudication, where lawyers make a ruling that has the same authority as a court decision. Since last summer, most strata property disputes have been settled before that stage, with 13 cases settled by adjudication.

Those cases include one where an apartment owner was ordered to stop smoking tobacco and marijuana in his suite, after a series of complaints and unpaid fines under the strata bylaw prohibiting smoking. Others dealt with owner claims on the strata council, such as the cost of replacing patio doors.

Court systems across the country have struggled with the rising volume and complexity of criminal and civil cases. Some have been dismissed over delays, especially since the Supreme Court of Canada ordered time limits last year. Provincial court cases now have to be resolved in 18 months, and B.C. Supreme Court cases in 30 months, with exceptions for unusual circumstances.

Roadside licence suspensions and fines for impaired driving have removed about 6,000 cases a year out of criminal courts.

Anton said B.C. has seen fewer charges stayed due to the new time limits than other provinces, in part because of diversion of minor cases away from the courts.