Script 432 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.
This script explains our court system and other ways to solve legal disputes besides court, known as “alternative dispute resolution” or ADR.
British Columbia has two levels of trial court
These two levels are:
- Provincial Court
- Supreme Court
Trial courts hear evidence and decide cases.
Most cases start in Provincial Court
There are provincial courts in nearly 100 BC communities. Provincial Court has the following four main parts or divisions:
- Criminal Division, known as “Criminal Court”
- Family and Youth Division, sometimes called “Family Court” and “Youth Court”
- Small Claims Division, known as “Small Claims Court”
- Traffic Division, or “Traffic Court”
The BC Provincial Court website is www.provincialcourt.bc.ca.
Criminal Court deals with criminal issues
A person accused of a crime makes a first appearance in Criminal Court. If the person is in jail, a judge decides whether to release the person or keep them in jail until the trial. For less serious crimes, the trial is also held in this court. For more serious crimes, the accused person may be able to choose a trial here or in BC Supreme Court. The most serious crimes, like murder and treason, must be tried in Supreme Court. But even for those cases, a provincial court judge will still hold a preliminary inquiry to decide if there's enough evidence to have a trial in Supreme Court. For more information on criminal cases in Provincial Court, check script 211 on “Defending Yourself Against a Criminal Charge.”
The Family and Youth Division handles family, youth and criminal cases
It deals with family problems like maintenance for spouses, child support, custody and access, as well as some criminal cases involving families, like spouse abuse. This court also hears young offender cases involving youth aged 12 to 17. Check script 110 for more information on Family Court.
Small Claims Court deals with “civil” cases for $25,000 or less
In these cases, someone is suing someone else for money. People don't need a lawyer in this court; for example, all the forms are in plain language. For more information on Small Claims Court, check scripts 165, 166, 167, 168 and 169.
Traffic Court handles traffic and some other offences
These other offences include by-law offences like zoning and building code violations, plus some other offences under provincial law.
What does the BC Supreme Court deal with?
This court handles both criminal and civil cases. The most serious criminal trials, for murder and treason, are heard in this court, not in Provincial Court. Other serious criminal cases involving drugs, rape and attempted murder are usually tried here too. For civil cases, Supreme Court hears cases for more than $25,000 and some cases for less than that. For example, the law requires some types of cases, such as builders’ liens and divorce, to be handled in Supreme Court.
Both criminal and civil trials can be in front of a judge, or a judge and jury. Thirteen places in BC have Supreme Court “resident” judges. These judges also travel to other places throughout BC to hold trials. Cases in Supreme Court are usually complicated and, while not legally required, most people use lawyers.
BC Supreme Court also hears appeals of some Provincial Court decisions.
More information on BC Supreme Court is at www.courts.gov.bc.ca.
There is also the BC Court of Appeal
The BC Court of Appeal is the highest court in BC. It doesn't hold trials. The Court of Appeal reviews decisions of trial courts if any of the people in a case disagree with the decision and appeal it. It hears appeals of civil and criminal cases from the BC Supreme Court, as well as appeals of some criminal cases from Provincial Court. The Court of Appeal is in Vancouver, but it also travels to Victoria, Kamloops, and Kelowna to hear cases. See www.courts.gov.bc.ca for more information.
What are the federal courts?
At the federal level, we have the Federal Court of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada.
What does the Federal Court deal with?
The Federal Court of Canada consists of the Federal Court, which is a trial court, and the Federal Court of Appeal. The Federal Court holds trials for cases on federal laws, mainly in the areas of immigration, income tax, and maritime law. These trials are before a judge only. The Federal Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions by the Federal Court. The Federal Court’s website is www.fct-cf.gc.ca.
The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest appeal court
Based in Ottawa, it hears appeals from decisions of the BC Court of Appeal, from the appeal courts of other provinces, and from the Federal Court of Appeal. Usually, the Supreme Court of Canada must agree to hear an appeal – and it doesn't agree to hear every appeal that people request. But there are some cases where the right to appeal is automatic. Until recently, people often had to go to the court in Ottawa, but now the court hears some appeals by live video over a satellite link to a court in Vancouver. The court also deals with some appeals just in writing. For more information on the Supreme Court of Canada, see its website at www.scc-csc.gc.ca.
Courts are normally open to the public
All courtrooms are normally open to the public, so you can attend and watch. You can walk in and no one will ask you what you’re doing, as long as you’re quiet and don't disturb the proceeding. Some high profile trials (such as those gang and biker trials and the Air India trial) are not completely open to the public. They have intense screening and secureity of anyone who wants to attend.
What is alternative dispute resolution?
Alternative dispute resolution or ADR is an alternative to going to court. The three most common alternative ways to solve legal disputes are:
ADR works best at an early stage of a dispute. Otherwise, the more time that goes by, the more likely it is that you and the other person will believe that you’re each “right” and the other person is “wrong.” Once you become stuck in your beliefs and positions, and ignore the common interests you may have, it’s more difficult to reach a solution you both accept.
Why choose ADR over court?
Courts are often slow and expensive. They’re not always the best place to solve a dispute. Going to court can often end up costing more than the dispute is worth. And going to court may not work if you need a quick solution. Also, court proceedings are open to the public, while ADR is private.
Even if you go to court, you can still try ADR in most cases. After a lawsuit has started, lawyers often negotiate settlements for their clients so they don’t have to go to trial. Or your lawyer might recommend you try mediation or arbitration before going further with a lawsuit.
How does negotiation work?
Negotiation involves reaching an agreement with another person – you both work out a solution together that fits both of your interests. Negotiation happens every day. It’s probably something you often do, perhaps without even realizing it. If you try to negotiate a legal dispute without a lawyer, you should both sign an agreement first that says your negotiations are “without prejudice” to your legal rights – meaning that your discussions won’t be used against either person if one of you decides to go to court.
A lawyer or counsellor may be able to help you negotiate an agreement. But a negotiator represents one side only, and bargains for their best interests.
How does mediation work?
Mediation is a voluntary process that both people in the dispute agree to. A neutral person, called a mediator, listens to you and the other person in the dispute, and helps the two of you reach a solution that works for both of you. The mediator doesn’t work for either person, or favour one person over the other. The mediator manages the process and organizes your discussions. He or she helps clear up misunderstandings and reduce tension, so you and the other person feel comfortable sorting out your problems together. But while the mediator helps the two of you to come to an agreement, he or she won’t decide for you, or force you to accept a solution.
Mediation works well for most disputes – especially when the facts are clear, the people are in an on-going relationship, and they want to protect their privacy. For example, mediation can be ideal for solving family disputes and divorce issues, where the spouses have a continuing relationship and need to work together to solve child custody problems.
But mediation only works if both people are willing to resolve their dispute. It doesn’t work if one person isn’t interested in a solution that satisfies both people. In that case, court may be the only solution.
For more information on family mediation, check script 111 on “Mediation and Collaborative Law.”
How does arbitration work?
If you and the other person in the dispute are really quarrelling, or if you would prefer a neutral person (or panel of people) to decide for you, you may choose arbitration. An arbitrator is often experienced with the type of dispute you have and may be an expert on the subject. Arbitration works well for commercial and business disputes.
Arbitration is more formal than mediation, but less formal than court. You and the other person agree in advance on the rules for the arbitration process. If you wish, you can both agree on a process that will allow the arbitrator to reach a decision on a limited budget. The arbitrator listens to the evidence you each present and then makes a decision.
Before arbitration begins, you and the other person must decide if you can still go to court if you don’t like the arbitrator’s decision. This may depend on the law that applies to your particular problem. Usually, you’re not able to go to court later if you’re unhappy with the arbitration result.
Where can you find a mediator or arbitrator?
Professionals who provide alternative dispute resolution include lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. When looking for a mediator or arbitrator, it’s important to work with a qualified and skilled professional experienced in the type of dispute resolution process you want to use.
- The BC Arbitration and Mediation Institute can put you in touch with a chartered mediator or arbitrator who is a member of the ADR Institute of Canada. The ADR Institute of Canada is a national, non-profit organization that sets education and training standards for its chartered mediators and arbitrators (www.adrcanada.ca). Contact the BC Arbitration and Mediation Institute at 604.736.6614 in Vancouver or toll-free 1.877.332.2264 elsewhere in BC. Also, check their website at www.amibc.org for more information.
- Try the Mediate BC Society at 250.381.9006 in Victoria or 1.888.713.0433 elsewhere in BC. Or visit their website at www.mediatebc.com.
- Call the Lawyer Referral Service, operated by the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, for a lawyer experienced in alternative dispute resolution. Call 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in BC.
- Organizations related to a specific business, product or service may also offer ADR. For example, the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan has an arbitration program for disputes between consumers and vehicle manufacturers about alleged manufacturing defects or new vehicle warranties (www.camvap.ca). If you have a complaint involving a business, the Better Business Bureau offers both mediation and arbitration (www.mbc.bbb.org) for the BBB of mainland BC). The BC Arbitration and Mediation Institute has a new program specifically for resolving strata bylaw disputes through mediation.
Where can you find more information?
- For information on the court system, contact the Justice Education Society. The society has offices throughout BC. Their website is www.JusticeEducation.ca. The Vancouver phone number is 604.660.9870. Also, see the website of BC’s Court Services Branch at www.ag.gov.bc.ca/courts.
- For more information on ADR, visit the website of the Dispute Resolution Office of the BC Ministry of Attorney General at www.ag.gov.bc.ca/dro.
[updated June 2012]
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