Have you ever heard someone talk about “small claims court” and wondered what that meant? Alberta has various levels of courts: Provincial Court, the Court of Queen’s Bench, and the Court of Appeal. Each level of court has specific jurisdiction (i.e. authority to hear certain matters), sometimes with overlap. In particular, you may have the option to bring a civil claim in either Provincial Court or the Court of Queen’s Bench. Provincial Court is sometimes informally referred to as “small claims court” and may offer a faster, less complex resolution than proceedings in the Court of Queen’s Bench. This article is intended as an introductory overview about the civil processes in Provincial Court, and why you may want to pursue your civil claim there.
What is a civil claim?
Provincial Court covers a variety of legal areas, including some criminal matters (for adults and youth), family matters, traffic violations, and offences under provincial statutes and regulations and municipal bylaws. Generally speaking, disputes between individuals and/or organizations which do not fall under one of these areas of law may be considered a civil matter. Common examples of civil matters include employment disputes, contract disputes, and landlord and tenant disputes. (Please note that landlord and tenant disputes may also be resolved through the Residential Tenancy Dispute Resolution Service (RTDRS) – see https://www.alberta.ca/residential-tenancy-dispute- resolution-service.aspx for more information on this venue and process.)
What civil matters can Provincial Court hear?
Provincial Court is currently able to hear civil claims and counterclaims seeking $50,000.00 or less. If your civil claim or counterclaim is for more than $50,000.00, you may still bring it in Provincial Court but must be willing to abandon that portion of your claim/counterclaim greater than $50,000.00. Abandoning part of your claim means that you are agreeing to forfeit that amount greater than $50,000.00 and will not be entitled to recover it, now or at any time in the future, in Provincial Court or any other court.
Provincial Court has jurisdiction to hear most civil matters, but cannot decide civil claims or counterclaims that raise the following issues (as per s. 9.6(2) of the Provincial Court Act, RSA 2000, c P-31):
- title to land;
- validity of any devise, bequest, or limitation;
- malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, defamation, or criminal conversation;
- anything done by a judge, justice of the peace, or peace officer while that person is executing the duties of that office; or
- recovery of taxes by a local authority or school board, other than taxes imposed in respect of the occupancy of or an interest in land that is itself exempt from taxation.
If you are uncertain whether your civil claim falls into one of these areas, please consult with a lawyer.
How to start a civil claim in Provincial Court
To bring a civil claim in Provincial Court, you need to fill in and file a Civil Claim form. Provincial Court recently updated its forms, which can be found on its website (https://www.albertacourts.ca/pc/areas-of-law/civil/forms). You do not provide evidence at this point in the process. There is currently a $100.00 filing fee for civil claims up to and including $7,500.00, and a $200.00 filing fee for civil claims over $7,500.00. This filing fee is payable at the time of filing your civil claim.
Generally speaking, you have two years from the date of discovery of your claim to file a civil claim with the court. This is known as the limitation period; if you do not file your civil claim within the applicable limitation period, there is a good chance that your claim will be dismissed. Please consult with a lawyer to accurately determine the limitation period for your specific claim.
If you are named as a defendant in a civil claim filed with Provincial Court, you may defend the civil claim by filing a Dispute Note form with Provincial Court within 20 days from the date of service of the civil claim if served in Alberta, or 30 days from the date of service of the civil claim if served outside Alberta. A defendant may also set out a counterclaim (i.e. a claim against the plaintiff) in the Dispute Note form.
Next steps in Provincial Court
Provincial Court has adopted a “triage” process used after Civil Claim and Dispute Note forms are filed. Sometimes a civil matter is resolved after one step; sometimes multiple steps will be used on the path to resolution.
First, civil matters are considered for mediation. If a matter is selected for mediation, the parties will be notified of a date and time to attend. Mediations are usually scheduled for two to three hours, and are often held in a more informal space like a boardroom. Parties must attend mediation or risk having their claim/defence/counterclaim struck. Ahead of mediation, parties should collect documents relevant to their position (for example, printed copies of emails, text messages, letters, invoices, contracts, photographs, and/or reports) and consider how they would be willing to settle the matter. During mediation, each party will be provided with the opportunity to present their position. The mediator(s) will then help the parties to explore possible settlement options. The advantage of mediation is that parties can be creative – they can come to settlement agreements with terms that a judge would not be able to order. If the parties come to a settlement agreement during mediation, the matter is concluded at this point. If the matter is not settled during mediation, it is sent on to the next “triage” option.
If a civil matter is not appropriate for mediation, or is not settled during mediation, it is often scheduled for a pre-trial conference (also known by the shorthand “PTC”). A PTC is similar to mediation, but takes place in front of a Provincial Court Judge and usually in a courtroom. PTCs are usually scheduled for one hour. Generally speaking, PTCs are “off the record”, meaning that what the parties discuss during the PTC cannot be used if the matter goes to trial. However, there are exceptions to this, and a Judge can use her or his discretion to put admissions made by parties or other notes on the file for the Trial Judge to review.
Like a mediation, parties who fail to attend a PTC risk having their claim/defence/counterclaim struck. Parties are expected to exchange all records and documents relating to the matter typically 14 days before the PTC. This allows all parties to review the evidence and come to the PTC prepared to discuss the matter and provide their positions. During a PTC, parties are given an opportunity to present their positions, and then the Judge will help the parties to identify the facts that are agreed on and the facts that are in dispute, the legal issues that are central to the claim, the evidence that may be required if the matter goes to trial, and possibly the strengths and weaknesses of the parties’ positions. The Judge will also assist the parties in attempting to settle the matter. If the parties come to a settlement agreement during a PTC, the Judge may issue a Court Order setting out the terms of the settlement or direct the parties to exchange correspondence confirming the settlement terms. If the matter is not settled during a PTC, the Judge will schedule the matter for trial and may set deadlines for trial preparations. A Judge who has conducted a PTC is usually not the same Judge who will hear the trial.
- Binding Judicial Dispute Resolution (also known by the shorthand “BJDR”) – a civil matter can proceed to a BJDR if all parties consent. It is similar to a PTC, in that parties are expected to exchange all records and documents ahead of the BJDR. A Judge also presides over a BJDR, and if the parties are not able to come to a settlement agreement, the Judge may give a final and binding judgment, which cannot be appealed;
- Simplified Trial – a simplified trial is intended for civil matters that can be resolved in approximately one hour, and are generally scheduled in lieu of a PTC. Each party must provide a trial statement ahead of the simplified trial date, setting out the facts and evidence the party intends to rely on, a list of witnesses to be called and summary of evidence expected to be provided by the witnesses, and copies of all relevant documents and records. The Judge will render a judgment (either at the end of the simplified trial or at a later date), which may be appealed.
If none of the preceding options have settled a civil matter, it will be scheduled for trial to be heard by a Provincial Court Judge.
Considerations for bringing a civil claim in Provincial Court
There are various reasons that a party may decide to file a civil claim in Provincial Court instead of in the Court of Queen’s Bench:
- While individuals can self-represent (i.e. represent themselves without hiring a lawyer) in Provincial Court and the Court of Queen’s Bench, corporations can only self-represent in Provincial Court. A corporate party may therefore choose to file a civil claim in Provincial Court, so that it can be represented by an agent (for example, an officer or director of the company) without having to hire a lawyer.
- Provincial Court generally has less complex proceedings than the Court of Queen’s Bench. As illustrated by the information above, there are generally less litigation steps for a civil claim in Provincial Court compared to in the Court of Queen’s Bench, and Provincial Court generally provides more guidance to parties than the Court of Queen’s Bench. Provincial Court automatically considers the most appropriate resolution path for each civil claim and directs the parties thusly; while parties can take steps to pursue a different resolution path, such guidance from the court can be particularly helpful to parties who have not previously been involved in litigation.
- The variety of court-directed resolution options is also unique to Provincial Court. While parties involved in a civil claim in the Court of Queen’s Bench may also pursue mediation, this is typically done outside the court and at the parties’ own expenses. Provincial Court offers more options for resolving claims before getting to the trial stage, which can help to save parties time and money.
- Provincial Court also generally offers faster resolution of civil claims than the Court of Queen’s Bench, by diverting claims to different resolution options and by generally being able to schedule matters sooner than the Court of Queen’s Bench.
These are just some of the reasons why a party may decide to file a civil claim in Provincial Court. However, there are certain situations in which it may be more advantageous or appropriate to file a civil claim in the Court of Queen’s Bench. It can therefore be helpful to consult a lawyer on the specific facts and legal issues of your situation before filing your civil claim.
COVID-19 measures in Provincial Court
All levels of court in Alberta have implemented various measures in response to COVID-19. As of the date of this article, Provincial Court mediations are being conducted remotely (telephone, WebEx, or Zoom); pre-trial conferences are being conducted by teleconference in areas outside of Edmonton and Calgary (with teleconference participation encouraged in Edmonton and Calgary); physical distancing and sanitization protocols are in place in courthouses; and filing procedures have been amended for non-urgent documents. Please visit the Provincial Court’s website for up-to-date information.
This article was written by Allison Purdon, a lawyer at McCuaig Desrochers LLP.
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