We’ve all seen Judge Judy’s television show in which she dispenses her own brand of small claims ‘justice’. Judge Judith Sheindlin’s volatile temperament is great entertainment.
But, is Judge Judy realistic? Is that what Small Claims Court looks like in B.C.? That’s the topic of this week’s column.
Here’s some information about Small Claims Court:
Small Claims Court is designed to allow people to have their (relatively minor) disputes settled quickly and cheaply. It is a simple process (compared to the process that occurs in Supreme Court, anyway). The rules of Small Claims Court are clearly described at the following link: Small Claims Rules.
For some context, the other B.C. court where disputes are regularly decided is Supreme Court. It is a very formal system and legal representation is important (as the rules can be very complex).
Small Claims Court is a much more user-friendly system that allows regular citizens (who are not lawyers) to speak for themselves, without a lawyer (if they choose). It’s a good thing.
In order to have your claim heard in Small Claims, you have to pass a few hurdles.
First, your claim must be for $25,000.00 or less (excluding some interest and expenses). If your claim is over $25,000.00, then you have to abandon the excess amount to keep your claim in Small Claims (and not have it bumped into Supreme Court territory).
Second, your lawsuit must be one of the types of lawsuits allowed to be heard in Small Claims, as certain lawsuits cannot be heard in Small Claims, such as lawsuits involving slander. See section 3(2) of the Small Claims Act. The most common lawsuits in Small Claims are for the recovery of some debt or for losses suffered because of someone else’s mistake/negligence.
So, without a lawyer, how does someone navigate through the Small Claims process? Well, fortunately, there are a lot of online sources, such as Small Claims BC, that make it easy for anyone to sue in Small Claims. Also, the courthouse registry is staffed with wonderful people who can help. [But, remember that the registry is understaffed, but that is a different topic...]
So, what about our judges? Are they really like Judge Judy?
Short answer: No (obviously). Thankfully, real-world judges don’t have catch phrases (such as Judge Judy’s: “Beauty fades, dumb is forever”). But, like Judge Judy, our judges yield a lot of power.
For example, judges preside over settlement conferences, which are generally required in Small Claims lawsuits.
In settlement conferences, all parties in the dispute get together (in front a judge) and see if they can come to an agreement. The judge will try to mediate the claim, help the parties prepare for trial, narrow/define the issues, or make suggestions about the case. If you don’t attend the settlement conference, the judge can impose consequences: the claim could be dismissed (if the plaintiff doesn’t show up) or a payment order could be made against the defendant (if the defendant doesn’t show up). The judges in these conferences have a lot of power.
If the lawsuit cannot be settled and goes to trial, a different judge than the one who presided at the settlement conference will preside over the trial. That judge can then run the trial however they see fit… The judge may conduct a formal trial or an informal trial, questioning each participant and allowing the parties to tell their stories (without applying the strict rules of evidence law, which can be a great thing).
If the informal process is chosen, then the trial MAY resemble an episode of Judge Judy, but it will certainly not be as sensationalistic.
Unlike television judges who are interested in ratings and who dispense ‘justice’ at light-speed, our judges take their roles VERY seriously to ensure that justice is done – and you can be sure of that.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.