Online dispute resolution (ODR) will be introduced into the Small Claims Court system in BC. Just this past week, Bill 44, the Civil
Resolution Tribunal Act, passed its third reading and received Royal Assent. What this means is that if you have to go to Small Claims Court (any action under $25,000), you will be able to choose ODR instead of a traditional court resolution and have your case judged by someone online.
Small Claims Court can often be informal, and permits individuals to represent themselves. Participants are typically self-represented; however, they are permitted to acquire the services of a lawyer. The new Tribunals in BC will operate in a similar fashion with one main exception—litigants cannot obtain legal representation.
Just last summer I wrote about ODR, which at that time felt too futuristic and forward thinking to be a possibility in this decade. But, the BC Government, always one step ahead of the others, has introduced a new technology that has the potential to really improve the accessibility of justice and reduce the cost of delivering it. It’s interesting to see how drastically things can change in a year.
So what is ODR?
Wikipedia defines it as “technology to facilitate the resolution of disputes between parties.” Bill 44 defines ODR services as “dispute resolution services that are provided by way of electronic communication tools and are intended to assist parties in resolving a dispute by agreement …”. Electronic communication is achieved through electronic communication tools, which are defined in the Bill as computer programs or other electronic means, used by way of the Internet.
It seems like a definition broad enough to allow for changes in technology, but also specific enough to say it will involve Internet-enabled technologies. What is not clear is what choices, if any, users will have in their choice of tools online. For example, can they use Skype? Will it be just teleconferencing or will it include video? Will they use a Google hangout type of tool?
Bill 44 has received a considerable amount of criticism since its first reading, focused primarily on Section 20, which forbids legal representation. Some feel that forcing parties to represent themselves might place some individuals at a disadvantage. This concern seems to be moot because it is an “opt in” system, and one can always decide to proceed through the regular Small Claims Court route. In addition, Section 9, which excludes the BC Government from proceedings, also does not sit well with critics. This may suggest that the government is not standing behind their proposed solution to judicial inefficiency.
It remains to be seen what impact Bill 44 will have on the Small Claims Court system in BC, and what precedence it will set for the rest of Canada.