It is almost six o’clock on a Wednesday evening at the provincial court in Robson Square. The benches along the wall are all occupied. Those on their feet are pacing slightly. Considering the number of people present, it is surprisingly quiet. The conversations amount to soft assurances and nervous small talk. Everyone looks focused but it’s not exactly tense. Papers are shuffled. Watches are consulted. And every now and then someone walks up to one of the several closed doors to look inside its window.
Most people look as though they came straight from work. It is certainly a diverse crowd. After a few minutes, the PA system announces that a particular courtroom is ready. Several individuals leap up attentively and file into the room slowly. Soon after that, another room down this hallway is filled in similar fashion. And then another, and another. Until the rooms in this hallway all fill up. After about an hour, these rooms will empty and the process continues again.
This is the scene of the simplified trials at the B.C. small claims court. It’s often referred to informally (and affectionately?) as Night Court. Often when I make this reference, I’m met with nostalgic smiles by those familiar with the American sitcom of the same name circa 1980s to early 1990s. Although I never watched the show, I prefer calling it “Night Court” simply because it has a nice ring to it.
B.C. small claims court decides civil disputes of up to $25,000. The simplified trial program handles these lawsuits if they are for $5,000 or less. It is currently held in the Vancouver and Richmond courthouses. The Vancouver program excludes lawsuits for financial debt and personal injury; in Richmond it excludes personal injury lawsuits. If a B.C. small claims lawsuit involves $5,000 or less, is filed at the Vancouver or Richmond court registry, and is not excluded for its subject matter, then it is automatically sent through the Simplified Trial program.
Lawsuits that fall within this program have streamlined proceedings. Unlike B.C. Supreme Court lawsuits or the other small claims lawsuits, there are no required court appearances before trial. Trial dates can be obtained in a matter of months which can be far quicker than other court processes. In a recent Night Court trial that I was involved in (yes, lawyers sometimes appear), the trial was scheduled within six months of the start of the lawsuit.
Night Court (i.e. simplified trials) is held every second Wednesday at the Robson Square courthouse. In Richmond, the program runs every Friday during the day. Trials run for an hour and this can be strictly enforced since trials are scheduled on the hour every hour for the evening. Even for the simplest dispute, an hour can seem like a tight squeeze.
Night Court trials are not heard by judges. They are heard by impartial and experienced lawyers who are appointed as justices of the peace. A justice of the peace hears the evidence from both sides before making a ruling.
The program is designed to be friendlier to parties who are representing themselves. The trials are typically more informal. With the time constraints, the justice of the peace has a difficult task of getting to the relevant and important facts while ensuring both parties get a fair trial. The justice of the peace may give a ruling at the end of the hour or decide to wait before issuing a written decision.
For those who are considering a small claims lawsuit, they should know about the simplified trial program in case the lawsuit falls within the criteria. It might be an important consideration that affects where the lawsuit should be filed.
And even for those not involved in a civil dispute, I will say that the process is an interesting look at our court system at its most accessible level. As with trials in other levels of court, they are generally open to the public.