Alberta pushing more matters to small claims and faster trials

Alberta is moving to change the way some matters are dealt with in the court system in an attempt to improve access to justice.

The Provincial Court of Alberta’s civil claims limit will increase to $50,000 from $25,000, effective Aug. 1.

The province’s justice minister says the change will ensure “more timely and cost-effective resolution of civil claims using a more simplified and user-friendly process.”

In a statement issued Monday Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis, said: “Increasing access to justice for Albertans is a priority. This is why the civil claims limit in the Provincial Court is being increased, and why more options for dispute resolution are being introduced.”

Lawyers who have experienced backlogs in the Court of Queen’s Bench and who have already been pushing clients to small claims court say it should be effective.

“I think that’s a really good thing because I think it will result in cheaper, quicker access to the courts for a number of individuals,” says Sharon Stefanyk, head of the insurance practice group at Field LLP’s Edmonton office.

“A lot of people do have claims that are between $25,000 and $50,000 and with those claims it’s difficult even as lawyers to advise these people because if a $50,000 claim had to go through the Court of Queen’s Bench, by the time you do all the preliminary steps to get the matter to trial you’re probably going to eat up a lot in legal fees.”

Stefanyk agrees the Court of Queen’s Bench “is quite overloaded.” For example, she was dealing with an appeal on a small claims matter going to the court a month ago and the closest available appeal date was April next year.

The Court of Queen’s Bench does have a judicial dispute resolution process where lawyers prepare briefs and appear before a judge to help mediate a settlement, but it is increasingly more difficult to get a JDR.

“It’s tough to get those — the dates they are giving out are fewer and fewer,” she says.

By increasing the limit to $50,000 for small claims, individuals can go into small claims court, have access to a judge, and get a dispute resolved faster using less resources for less. It is now thought to be the highest small claims limit in Canada. For example, Ontario and British Columbia had limits of $25,000.

A Provincial Court pilot project will direct civil claims disputes into appropriate resolution tracks. The pilot project begins this fall in Edmonton and Calgary.

“The mission of the Provincial Court of Alberta is to deliver quality justice on an accessible, affordable and timely basis. The Civil Division of our Court is committed to providing the fair and just resolution of civil disputes through affordable, understandable and simplified processes. The increase in the financial jurisdiction of our Court to $50,000 and the Court’s decision to implement resolution tracks will, together with existing dispute resolution mechanisms, enable more people to access our Court to resolve their civil disputes in a timely and cost-effective manner,” says Provincial Court Chief Judge Terrence Matchett.

Stefanyk says if there is a huge influx in small claims matters there will need to be an increase in resources to manage that and perhaps more judges.

“Jonathan Denis does sound like he’s prepared to do that,” she says.

But the increase in claims going via small claims may not be huge because in her own experience, Stefanyk says she has already been advising clients who have a $30,000 claim to go to small claims court rather than the Court of Queen’s Bench and give up on the $5,000 over the $25,000 limit currently in place.

“There may already be quite a few of those people already in that court system who have given up their claim above $25,000,” she says.

According to the Edmonton Journal, more changes are coming to how disputes get resolved. It reports ] in the fall Denis plans to table legislation to divert landlord and tenant disputes from the court system to a quasi-judicial tribunal for dispute resolution. He is also apparently looking at legislation that will create summary trials. Litigants will be able to opt for quick 30-minute trials.

“Thirty minutes might be optimistic but I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” says Stefanyk. “I think some effort and time would have to be spent thinking about the steps involved in getting to that summary trial. As long as all the documents are produced and at least one pre-trial meeting with the judge I think it would work quite well.”

It’s likely the changes will result in more work and potentially more difficult for the judges involved.

“If you have two self-represented litigants, I think the judge will have a heightened responsibility and obligation to make sure the proper evidence is before them, making sure the right evidence comes out and the documents are produced so they can make a decision,” says Stefanyk.

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