Have you gone through the courts on your own for a civil dispute? Are you considering a small claims lawsuit? Well, there’s been news that may interest you.
A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice announced a new tribunal called the Civil Resolution Tribunal in a press release. The tribunal (or CRT) promises to be an accessible and user-friendly forum for civil cases. It seems to be an ambitious and innovative project.
The law that is introducing the CRT is still in the works in Victoria. So for now, it is hard to say exactly what the tribunal will look like. The CRT is expected to be rolled out in the summer of 2015. In the meantime, the CRT chair Shannon Salter is busy getting the word out.
A major focus of the CRT appears to be strata disputes. Salter sees a tremendous demand to resolve strata disputes effectively. The CRT aims to make strata disputes more readily heard. “The Civil Resolution Tribunal is a new way for folks to resolve their everyday strata disputes,” says Salter. In addition to strata disputes, the CRT may be the new venue for smaller civil claims. This would be similar to the “night court” pilot projects in Vancouver and Richmond for some civil claims of $5,000 or less.
So what makes the CRT different from the courts? Litigants will be directed to go through an online self-help program called “Solution Explorer”. This offers information to help people identify the issues in their dispute. It will give people tools, such as template letters, to try and resolve the dispute themselves. According to Salter, they are “frontloading resources” to promote earlier resolutions. There appears to be a real push to get matters dealt with quickly.
If parties can not resolve their dispute with the resources given by Solution Explorer, they proceed to the CRT. There, the CRT can provide an impartial facilitator to encourage settlement. If negotiations fail and a ruling is required, CRT matters will be heard by lawyers appointed as adjudicators. Evidence will generally be given online. The adjudicated decision would have the same effect as a court order.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the CRT is its online accessibility. This tribunal is being billed as the first of its kind. All aspects of the process—dealing with the registry, filing your documents, securing dates, and conducting the trial—will be online. This takes the process out of the courthouse and into living rooms, public libraries, and anywhere with Wi-Fi. Certainly, litigants would welcome a process where they don’t need a day off work to go to the courthouse.
It’s hard to say if the CRT will be a success. There are real hurdles. For example, how will cases be fairly decided if the evidence is given online? Lots of cases involve evidence from one side that simply contradicts evidence of the other side. It could be as simple as a he-said-she-said situation. If it’s simply producing written statements online, the adjudicator would have a hard time choosing one side’s evidence over the other. The tribunal would allow for in-person hearings or video conferencing but this seems to be the exception to the rule.
The CRT promises an expedited process that outpaces that of small claims court. Cases in small claims court or B.C. Supreme court can drag on for years. The goal of the CRT, says Salter, is to resolve disputes within an average of 60 days. Of course, this is an average and a target. However, if claims are resolved at anywhere close to that pace, there is another concern. Will litigants feel their case was fairly heard or simply hurried out the door? If this only creates a “rough justice”, won’t the losing party simply rush off and file an appeal every time? If so, the CRT may inadvertently become an added hurdle for anyone wanting their day in court.
Putting aside these concerns, it is clear that the CRT is ambitious. A major motivation in implementing the CRT is to improve the access to justice. Salter says, “I really do think that it’s about putting the public at the centre of the justice system.”
The Solution Explorer is an admirable way of implementing a court process that educates and informs the public. For people in rural parts of B.C., the courts may not be feasible for their small civil claim. They would be hard-pressed to drive hours to the nearest courthouse for a dispute over a few thousand dollars. For them, the CRT can be a good option. Finally, the CRT strives to be easier to navigate than the courts. Since it does not rely on courtrooms, registries, or judges, or rigid timelines, it can be flexible to litigants’ schedules.
It will be some time before we can gauge the success of the CRT. We’ll have to wait to hear from the litigants themselves about their overall satisfaction with the CRT.
The writer would like to thank Salter for her insight. Find out more about the Civil Resolution Tribunal here.