This fall, British Columbians will have a new option for resolving small claims disputes. The new Civil Resolution Tribunal will use a mix of online platforms, telephone, videoconferencing, mail and in some cases, in-person meetings, to resolve small claims matters under $25,000 and certain strata disputes. The Tribunal provides a multi-stage process designed to reach mutual agreement at negotiation and case management stages, with the power to make final decisions if resolution cannot be achieved. Nominal fees will be charged to enter the process, escalating as the involvement of the Tribunal escalates. The ultimate goal of this Tribunal is to enhance access to justice by providing a forum for cost-effective, speedy, and informal resolution of disputes with the use of minimal resources.

How the Tribunal will operate:

In order to use the Tribunal, the parties to a dispute must both consent to an online negotiation process. The negotiations are monitored by the Tribunal but led by the parties, with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable settlement. If no agreement is reached within a certain time, the negotiation phase ends. The parties then have the option of agreeing to start a “case management” phase which involves active facilitation by a Tribunal case manager. Consent from all parties (except strata corporations) is required to enter this phase, including an agreement to be bound by a final order of the Tribunal if case management fails. Unlike the current small claims model, final decisions will typically be made based on evidence and arguments submitted online, and only rarely through an in-person hearing.

The claims the Tribunal can deal with: small claims under $25,000 and some strata issues

The Tribunal will hear small claims matters up to a maximum value of $25,000.  A party must abandon the amount of a claim above $25,000 if they want to use the Tribunal’s services to resolve their claim. The Tribunal cannot deal with any constitutional issues or claims against the government, and may decline to decide matters involving the B.C. Human Rights Code.

The Tribunal will also hear strata disputes between the owners or tenants of strata properties and strata corporations for a wide variety of issues, except matters that affect land or more significant matters in a strata complex, such as allegations of conflict of interest.

What does this mean for BC employers?

Given the current method and delays involved in resolving small claims disputes, the Tribunal offers a way for businesses and individuals to resolve minor employment disputes in a quicker and more convenient manner. The Tribunal may be particularly appropriate if the importance and amount of a dispute do not justify the time and costs of a more formal court process, and both parties are comfortable using technology to resolve the dispute.

However, there are certain aspects of the new Tribunal which parties should be aware of before proceeding. First, once a Tribunal proceeding has begun, neither party can start a new court proceeding or other adjudicative process until the dispute is resolved or the Tribunal refuses the claim. Any current court proceedings or other administrative processes involving the claim will have to be put on hold for the duration of the dispute resolution process. Second, claims should be made and defended with the same attention and care as in a traditional court process because the Tribunal’s final order, once filed with the B.C. Supreme or Provincial Court, will be binding as though it were an order of that court. In addition, the Tribunal can order an unsuccessful party to pay the successful party’s costs. Third, although you may still consult a lawyer as part of the process, all parties will be self-represented before the Tribunal.

Despite these concerns, the Tribunal is at the vanguard of the ‘brave new world’ of online dispute resolution, and will assist in ensuring that dispute resolution processes are proportionate to the amounts and issues involved.  We will keep you updated once the Tribunal starts its work.