Small claims, strata disputes to go to online tribunal

First in the world says Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, offering mediation and arbitration of disputes under $10,000

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton

Financial disputes involving less than $10,000 will soon be directed to an online “civil resolution tribunal,” in an effort by the B.C. government to keep them from clogging up the courts.

The new tribunal will also provide a place to resolve strata disputes, which now have only a costly B.C. Supreme Court option if strata councils can’t resolve them, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said.

Anton presented legislation Tuesday to create the new tribunal, which is to come into effect later this year. She said it will begin as a voluntary option, and later a deposit will be required for those who want to go directly to court instead.

Anton said B.C. is the first jurisdiction in the world to establish an online dispute resolution tribunal. The government estimates that 40,000 people a year will eventually use the tribunal.

“The really big change for stratas is that there is now a place for minor strata issues to go to,” Anton said. “Everybody knows somebody who has been in a strata nightmare. Often it’s about something fairly minor, like a tree or a parking spot. There hasn’t been a forum to have a resolution to those disputes.”

The tribunal will operate in three stages. The first is an application submitted to a website describing the claim, with an opportunity for response from the other party. That service will be offered free, and includes information and self-help suggestions to settle the dispute without further intervention.

If that fails, the second stage would bring in a mediator to seek an agreed settlement of the dispute. The third stage would be sending the dispute to a tribunal member for arbitration. Fees for the second two stages have not yet been established.

Tony Gioventu, executive director of the non-profit Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., welcomed the new approach. But he cautioned there will be a learning curve for strata councils.

“Education will be essential and CHOA is committed to working with the strata community to ensure the creation of a system that provides good justice in a timely manner that works for all strata corporations,” Gioventu said.

The B.C. government has used mediation before in an effort to relieve the load on provincial and B.C. Supreme Court. The Family Law Act of 2011 was designed to encourage out-of-court settlements of property and parental responsibility disputes when marriages and common-law relationships end.