If you have ever been involved in a civil dispute filed in the British Columbia Provincial Court, Small Claims Court division then you will be aware that it can be a time consuming process with several stages scheduled over several months.  Although the small claims court is a relatively inexpensive option for certain civil disputes to be heard, it can also be very stressful and time consuming for litigants to go through this route.

The Province of British Columbia has recently assented to a new Civil Resolution Tribunal Act which establishes a new dispute resolution process, the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This new tribunal, which is expected to begin operating when the act comes into force at the end of 2013 or early 2014, will have authority to hear some strata property disputes and, where there is agreement between the parties, small claims matters up to $25,000.

The tribunal’s structure is going to be different to the Small Claims Court. Instead of going through the litigious court system, the tribunal will be set up in a way to use alternative dispute resolution methods with the intention of trying to resolve disputes as soon as possible and within 60 days.

The alternative dispute resolution method, will be run from a website, where parties can seek information regarding strategies encouraging the resolution of disputes.   If a dispute is unable to be resolved by the parties on their own, they will then be able to sign up to an online party-to-party negotiation service.  If the other party to the dispute agrees to participate, the online negotiation service will guide the parties through the negotiation process and facilitate their communications.  If a resolution is not reached within a certain period of time, the dispute will be escalated to having the dispute resolved by a tribunal if there is consent from both parties.

If the dispute is escalated, a tribunal case manager will be assigned to and mediate between the parties to try and come to a resolution. They will contact both parties either online, or by telephone for this purpose.  If a settlement cannot be reached, the case manager will then identify the issues and request any further evidence that may be required in order for an adjudicator to hear the dispute.  An adjudicator will then conduct a hearing, either by telephone or video conference or occasionally in person.  The adjudicator will have the authority to make a decision that binds the parties.  Any decision granted by the tribunal could then be filed with either the British Columbia Provincial Court or British Columbia Supreme Court and enforced as though it was an order of the court.

There will be fees involved at each stage of the process based on a ‘cost recovery’ formula.  In addition, it is important to note, that for small claims matters, both parties must agree to use this forum.  If the parties do not agree to resolve the dispute in this way, then they cannot proceed through this alternative dispute resolution method. They will still have the option of proceeding through the Small Claims Court.  It will be interesting to see how British Columbia residents will take up the system.  It certainly provides a more collaborative law approach to disputes which is unique to this Province.