B.C.’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, which handles strata disputes online, is poised to launch a second online system for settling disputes between small claims litigants.
CRT chair and lawyer Shannon Salter said the Solution Explorer self-help tool adapted for small claims disputes is currently available on the tribunal website for public viewing but will not activate until a final cabinet approval empowers it in early 2017. “We expect the decision in the near future,” says Salter, adding that the financial threshold of the cases will be less than the current $25,000 limit applying to small claims court litigants.
“We will likely start with a smaller amount and gradually increase in time,” she says, which will also permit the tribunal to ramp up staff as the case volumes increase. Small claims courts in B.C. handle up to 11,000 cases annually.
Salter said the ability to resolve small claims disputes online extends the mediation efforts B.C. initiated for small claims and family disputes as an alternative to costly and time-consuming court litigation. “We have the opportunity to build upon the Court Mediation Program,” she says, as an online initiative will reach throughout B.C. Currently, the small claims mediation program only has five registries (Vancouver, North Vancouver, Surrey, Nanaimo and Victoria) and handles only claims of up to $10,000 except for Vancouver.
Salter said that only two mediation program registries are outside the Lower Mainland, making it difficult for rural residents to access the program’s mediation. The online tool can be accessed from any B.C. point that has Internet and is especially useful for individuals living in remote or rural areas, as individuals do not have to commute long distances, miss work, and arrange child care.
The online tool provides other benefits such as providing self-represented litigants, who cannot afford a lawyer, with legal information lessening confusion over the issues and process. Also, in many outlying areas of B.C. a lawyer shortage exists and finding legal advice can be challenging.
The small claims dispute tool is riding on the success of the CRT’s strata dispute system launched in July 2016 on its website becoming Canada’s first such online site. The strata tool has had 4,000 hits since its launch with users running the gambit from the curious to individuals seeking legal information to solve their own disputes to the 230 cases that have moved forward to mediation or adjudication.
“The model is about bringing the justice system to where people are and to make it simple to understand,” says Salter, who used three language experts to design a style guide that ensures all legal information is rendered to a grade six reading level. As well, the government forms have also been stylized to be easy to understand and fill out.
Salter said the strata software tool has been designed as a “a guided pathway” that takes individuals with a complaint through bite-sized pieces of legal information that can help determine whether their issue is a legal complaint, what are their rights and provides some help in how to settle the dispute (pamphlets and letters are available online). The process is geared towards self-resolution of disputes. If the individual is not able to resolve the issue, CRT can provide the mediation and adjudication.
The payback of a tool that is user-friendly and informative, says Slater, has been office staff spend less time answering questions or searching for more information and can spend more time dealing with individuals who may be illiterate or have language issues.
She said the Internet delivery model is geared to be user-friendly for both strata and small claims users. “We know that 92 per cent of people are on-line every day in B.C.,” she said. “People email, text and Google and so we are not asking them to do anything that is more difficult.”
The CRT’s first six months of operation has shown only two requests for non-email communications, fewrequests for hard-copy forms and individuals using the strata tool after work. “We found that 45 per cent were filling out their applications outside of work, typically on weekends or in the evenings,” she says, adding it is reflective of how the on-line tool is adaptable to user needs.
Salter said the small claims tool will be more complex than that which serves strata users as only a few statutes pertain to strata disputes. Small claims can affect a breadth of statutes and as case volumes increase, more information will be detailed on the website as legal expert opinions and information is added.
The CRT staff form an interdisciplinary team, with several lawyers. The CRT’s executive director and registrar is lawyer Richard Rogers. There are seven resolution support clerks who assist individuals attempting to resolve their own disputes. Five facilitators or case managers mediate disputes and are led by lawyer Kandis McCall, director of case management.
“In addition, there are 16 part-time tribunal members who are also lawyers from throughout the province,” she says, adding that these members, writing adjudication decision have gone through sessions to ensure decisions are written in “plain language — which can be a challenge for lawyers.” As well, facilitators have been briefed on how to collect information in disputes that have to go forward to adjudication. “Administrative law principals kick in,” she says as parties have the opportunity to exchange information and cross examine via conference calls.
Salter believes that the model of online tribunals and the Internet to provide access to justice and legal information will be a deepening trend. “MyLawBC offers solutions for separation agreements (using a Dialogue Tool) and help with a will,” she says. While not a tribunal, the Legal Services Society website does offer legal help for those unable to afford or access a lawyer. The B.C. Residential Tenancies Branch, she said, is also using the Solution Explorer software to field and resolve landlord and tenant disputes.
“We have to find creative new ways to connect people to the services they need and one way is to provide access justice on line,” she says.