In 2012, British Columbia passed the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act, which established a new aspect of BC’s justice system that will provide online dispute resolution services for strata (condominium) and small claims cases. The Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) will be Canada’s first online tribunal and is expected to launch later this year. The CRT will take disputants through a series of online tools designed to help resolve the dispute as effectively and efficiently as possible. For example, disputants first will be led through resources designed to provide information and diagnose the problem. The next phase involves part-to-party negotiation through the online system. For parties that are unable to negotiate a settlement on their own, the next phase offers case management and facilitated dispute resolution. Parties still unable to come to an agreement may move to adjudication, where they will be able to ask the tribunal to issue a decision. Because the CRT’s dispute resolution services will be available online, users will be able to access them from home or from a mobile device, 24 hours a day. To further facilitate access to justice, the CRT will allow “helpers” to aid disputants who do not read English or need assistance with technology. The language access already provided by the court will be made available, and the CRT will also employee multilingual staff, when possible, and make telephone interpretation available.
Last month, Bill 19, the Civil Resolution Tribunal Amendment Act, was introduced in the legislature. The amended act would require most strata and many small claims cases to be diverted to the CRT, expanding its authority. The goal of the proposed expansion is to “resolve disputes faster and with more lasting outcomes, while saving people time and money,” says Suzanne Anton, British Columbia’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice. If the amendment passes, the CRT’s expanded authority wouldn’t go into effect until 2016. The intent behind proposing a mandatory, rather than voluntary, model is to avoid low participation rates often found in voluntary or opt-in alternative dispute resolution programs. The idea is that increased participation rates will mean expanded access to justice and reduced costs. While this amended model would be mandatory, participants would retain the right to request that their dispute is heard in court.
In addition to the new amendments, some aspects of the 2012 Act are still being debated. Section 20 states that, as a general rule, parties will represent themselves. The Act provides that “in the interest of justice or fairness” the tribunal may permit a party to be represented, but a party must be underage or demonstrate why representation is necessary. The CRT says that 90% of small claims litigants are pro se and argues that making the involvement of attorneys the exception, rather than the rule, will help the CRT fulfill its goals of keeping the online process streamlined, efficient and cost-effective. However, the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Bar Association is proposing that the new amendments introduced last month be amended further to remove Section 20’s limited use of attorneys. The CRT points out that while attorneys may need to unbundle their services, working with clients to prepare documents, review evidence and provide legal advice, but not representing the client at a facilitated settlement discussion or an adjudicated hearing, for example, there will still be cases where they have an important role to play. As Sharon Salter, chair of the CRT, emphasizes, “The goal is to empower and support people … [to] resolve strata property and small claims disputes fairly, quickly and affordably, from the comfort of their own home.”