B.C. unveils plans for swift online dispute resolution

The B.C. government has unveiled plans for an online tribunal to take small civil claims and strata property disputes out of the courts.

Bill 44, the civil resolution tribunal act,  introduced in the provincial legislature earlier this week, promises a 60-day dispute resolution process, compared with the 12 to 18 months it can currently take for cases to wind their way through the province’s Small Claims Court.

The government claims the tribunal, planned for launch in 2013 or 2014, will cut legal fees and travel costs for parties.

“Both individuals and business owners will find this a convenient and affordable way of reaching agreements,” B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond said in a statement. “Few people want to go to court to solve a legal dispute, which can be costly, intimidating and time consuming. A tribunal offers an innovative alternative to settling a dispute in a faster, more amicable way.”

The tribunal will be available for disputes worth up to $25,000 where both parties agree to participate, leaving open the alternative of going to court. However, the government has said the process could be mandatory for strata corporations in certain property disputes.

Strata property disputes covered by the new legislation include non-payment of fees or fines, unfair actions by strata corporations, arbitrary by-laws, and financial responsibility for repairs. Matters that affect land, such as those involving liens and phased strata plans, will continue to be heard in the supreme court, as well as other more serious matters, like the appointment of an administrator or liquidation.

Tony Gioventu, the executive director of the Condominium Home Owners’ Association of British Columbia, welcomed the government’s move.

“The introduction of the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act is the first of several steps forward in developing new dispute resolution alternatives for strata corporations” he said. “The next step will be developing the rules and regulations which are vital to the success of a tribunal. We look forward to continuing our partnership with government to ensure the establishment of a tribunal that benefits the strata community.”

According to the B.C. government, the new tribunal would progress in four stages, with participants progressing to the next stage only if they were unable to reach agreement:
  1. An interactive dispute resolution guide, with information, tips and templates to help the parties reach a settlement.
  2. Party-to-party negotiations, using online tools to make contact and exchange information, with the tribunal monitoring discussions and intervening if necessary.
  3. Case manager contacts the parties by phone or online to discuss the issues and attempt a facilitated settlement.
  4. Tribunal hearing, with a tribunal member discussing the issues with parties online, by phone, videoconference or occasionally in person, and giving a binding decision on the dispute.

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