B.C.’s Civil Resolution Tribunal keeps ‘doors open’ during pandemic

CRT is able to stay fully operational because it operates remotely

B.C.’s Civil Resolution Tribunal keeps ‘doors open’ during pandemic
“This [is] a critical opportunity for the public justice system to mobilize,” says CRT chair Shannon Salter.

In a COVID-19 world, with nearly everything including courthouses closing down, British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal is bucking the trend by remaining fully operational due to the fact that, since its inception, it has operated remotely.

It may provide a public justice model going forward.

The Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) opened its doors (so to speak) in July 2016, to settle condominium (“strata”) and small-claims disputes, and has been given new areas of jurisdiction, including most motor vehicle personal injury disputes, “pretty much since then,” says Shannon Salter, chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal, from her home base in Vancouver (where, of course, she is working remotely).

The CRT uses online dispute resolution “and a distributed, remote workforce, which has allowed us to continue serving the public during this time,” Salter says. “I see this as a critical opportunity for the public justice system to mobilize” in a similar fashion, where to date, she reports, nearly all individuals using the CRT’s services have chosen to engage with the CRT exclusively online. The CRT may also be contacted via email and telephone.

Applicants to the CRT start by using the online Solution Explorer, which is free, anonymous and confidential. The Solution Explorer asks simple questions about the dispute, and provides legal information and tools based on the answers. It also classifies the dispute and gives the applicant the appropriate online application form. The applicant then clicks on a dispute area on the website’s “Get Started” page to begin. Dispute areas include personal injury; the purchase and sale of goods and services; loans and debts; construction and renovations; employment (non-unionized); insurance disputes; and property.

The parties upload evidence, as well as submissions, and the case is assigned to tribunal member. If an oral hearing is required, it’s done via Skype. Disputes are primarily resolved through settlements and consensual agreements, with a smaller number being resolved through adjudication, with decisions then published on the CRT’s website and on CanLII, as well as emailed to the parties.

The CRT has been welcomed by community legal advocates, says Salter, as it enables claimants to participate in the dispute resolution system from a familiar and comfortable home environment, which is especially helpful if they have young children or live in rural areas. And, it has meant that “we’ve been able to keep doors open and operating normally,” Salter says.

“Most of the focus during the pandemic has been ‘how do we make things easier during COVID-19?’” The CRT’s online dispute resolution system will now provide even more flexibility and latitude, she says, meaning claimants will have longer timeframes in which to file materials.

“We’re also pausing until after May 1 to deliver default orders against people,” she says. The simple fee-waiver process will now expand discretion to those experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19, and provide more flexibility in asking for proof of income, for example, as claimants may be recently unemployed.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, about 70 per cent of the CRT’s staff and tribunal members worked remotely; now, all do except for one lone employee who staffs the Victoria office. The transition for the remaining staff was easily facilitated because a system for remote work had already been established.

The CRT is the first and only online tribunal  in Canada, and the first in the world when it was launched in 2016. Now, says Salter, there are others globally, including a new initiative in the U.K. based on the CRT.

“It was exciting to see that develop,” she says, noting that she had travelled to England several times for a bird’s-eye view of the initiative. And in his most recent book, Online Courts and the Future of Justice, legal services futurist Richard Susskind also discusses the CRT, she notes.

“We get a lot interest from around the world” regarding this model of dispute resolution, she says; “if we can help” other jurisdictions establish something similar, the tribunal will do so.

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