Reasonable Doubt: I'll see you in (online) court

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      Our court system has been quietly changing in the past few years. The B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) has been up and running since last year. Its rollout created a buzz as what was touted as the world’s first fully online court system. You read that right: online.

      This means a court system where you wouldn’t need to appear before a judge in a courtroom or file papers at the courthouse. Everything would be done from the comfort of your home. Reasonable Doubt first wrote on this back in 2015 about its ambitions to be an innovative, accessible, and inexpensive court system. 

      Up until now, the CRT has only been hearing disputes between strata owners and their strata corporations. So if you haven’t been embroiled in a lawsuit with your strata, perhaps that’s why you haven’t heard of the CRT. But as the tribunal enters its second year, it is back in the news. Starting on June 1, 2017, the CRT will be expanding: it will become responsible for all small-claims disputes for less than $5,000.  If you’ve got a civil dispute that size that hasn’t been litigated yet, it’s likely that you won’t be going through the B.C. Small Claims Court.  Instead, you’ll find yourself in the CRT.

      To find out what this means for you, I recently spoke with the CRT chair, Shannon Salter. Salter explained that the announced expansion of the CRT is building off the progress made since its launch. Since July 2016, the CRT has given 5,000 people free legal information and has been in charge of 285 claims of strata disputes.

      Tribunal members have been adjudicating cases and publishing their reasons online. The vast majority of the strata disputes with the CRT have been resolved without the need for a final hearing. Their goal remains to process cases from beginning to end within 90 days. This is far less than civil disputes in B.C. Small Claims Court or B.C. Supreme Court that can stretch on for years and years.

      Salter was quick to point out the convenience to the public of a court system that doesn’t have typical business hours because it functions online. “The vast majority want to do everything online. Forty to 45 percent are engaging with the CRT outside of the typical court hours. What we’re noticing is people appreciate doing this on their own time,” Salter said.  She suggested that most people in small-claims cases don’t want to have to take time off work, find child care, and travel to the courthouse.  

      Still, there are concerns that come with an online court. Before the CRT was even launched, Reasonable Doubt brought these up. I wondered whether the convenience and speediness of the CRT would come at a cost. For example, a fully online tribunal would not generally have evidence given in person. Instead, the CRT would only have what’s submitted online—arguably less reliable and less credible forms of evidence. What has been the CRT’s experiences so far with this limitation?  Are people leaving the CRT system satisfied or are they simply rushing off to seek appeals?

      Salter acknowledged that it has only been eight months since it launched, but she feels that the feedback has been positive. The inherent limitations in hearing evidence don’t seem to affect user satisfaction. Salter pointed out that the CRT can still consider holding its hearings in person, on videoconference, or in a teleconference. Surprisingly, most people have not even asked the tribunal for these options. In fact, none of the hearings so far have been conducted that way. Another telling sign is that of the 14 cases that have gone right to the very end, only one had a party who was interested in appealing.

      On the phone, Salter sounded proud of what the CRT has accomplished and where it is headed. She seems passionate that the CRT help the public negotiate their disputes and become user-friendly for everyone.

      Given the backlogged court systems and public dissatisfaction with wait times, it’s a good bet that the CRT will only continue to expand its role. “Eventually, what you will see is all claims—whether it's for $10 or $50,000—will go through the initial phases of the CRT process,” Salter predicted. This would free up court time for criminal and family cases while making the overall experience for people in civil disputes more accessible. 

      There is reason to be optimistic about the CRT. The B.C. Small-Claims Court is designed to be user-friendly for self-represented litigants in small lawsuits, but the CRT takes this to another level. It makes sense to expand the CRT’s jurisdiction to civil disputes under $5,000. Here, the court system can be focused on delivering resolution that is convenient, quick, and easy to use. 

      The writer would like to thank Shannon Salter for her time.  Since her interview, the number of claims handled by the CRT have increased to over 300 with 19 published decisions (and counting).  Find out more about the Civil Resolution Tribunal here