Are you entitled to your day in court? Sure. However, the fact that the average five-day trial costs $60,000 plus in legal bills deters most people from taking legal disputes to court. In theory you can represent yourself, but you are likely to find the legal system frustratingly slow, complicated, and expensive. Even if you win you may not find the outcome entirely satisfactory, and there is always the possibility of an appeal.
Small Claims Court, a branch of provincial court which hears (mostly) monetary claims up to $25,000, is designed to be a “people’s court” with simpler procedures and therefore more accessibility to unrepresented parties. Other legal claims are heard in the more formal Supreme Court of B.C. Losing in the Supreme Court of B.C. can be very expensive even if you are not paying a lawyer to represent you — generally if you lose the judge will require you to pay a portion of the fees of the winning party’s lawyer.
What about access to legal aid? While legal aid was established to provide access to legal services to those unable to afford it, in reality it is available only in very specific circumstances. Originally legal aid in B.C. was provided pro bono by publicly-minded members of the legal profession. In the early 1970s federal and provincial governments began to contribute, but of course resources are not and never will be nearly sufficient to fund all those who want or need legal help.
In B.C,. legal aid is provided through the Legal Services Society, which gives priority to people with low incomes. In most cases aid will be limited to access to information, advice from duty counsel in criminal matters, and in family matters advice from a family advice lawyer and/or mediation services. Actual legal representation may be provided to people who qualify and have serious family problems, child protection issues, criminal law problems, and for some immigration, mental health and prison law issues.
To expand access to justice, the Legal Services Society has created MyLawBC, a new online service to guide people through matters involving family law, advance life planning, wills and estates and foreclosure. In time the service may be expanded beyond these areas. The new Civil Resolution Tribunal will provide online access to a dispute resolution process for small claims and strata disputes.
To minimize expense, minimize the possibility of a legal dispute. Getting competent professional help earlier rather than later, and before any dispute arises, will help save you money in the long run.
When you are thinking through your dispute, think through possible resolutions — not just your best case scenario, but a solution that might address the needs of both parties. Otherwise, you may be faced with lengthy and expensive court proceedings.