Recently, an important new bill came into force that could have profound implications for civil litigation in Alberta. In effect, the changes introduced under this bill could see the maximum amount for a Provincial Court civil claim nearly quadruple. The government explained this would provide Albertans with greater access to the Provincial Court, thereby enhancing access to justice in the province. We’ll look at the contents of the bill and explore how Alberta’s legal landscape may be affected.
New Act brings a series of amendments to Alberta laws
On December 15, 2022, Bill 5, the Justice Statutes Amendment Act, 2022 (No.2) (the “Amendment Act”) came into force, with some exceptions. The Amendment Act introduces a set of amendments to various Alberta laws that, at least incidentally, impact the legal system.
There’s an amendment to increase security at Alberta’s legislative assembly. Another of the amendments facilitates the easier collection of child and spousal support payments across Canada. One of the amendments — the subject of this post — is an amendment that allows the government to increase the civil claims limit in Alberta.
Amendment allows Alberta government to increase maximum civil claim amount
The Amendment Act changes subsection 9(1)(i) of Alberta’s Provincial Court Act, which allows the Lieutenant Governor in Council to make regulations prescribing the maximum monetary value of civil claims over which the Provincial Court has jurisdiction. Prior to the Amendment Act coming into force, the prescribed limit was $50,000. Now, the prescribed limit has risen to $200,000. So, in theory, the Lieutenant Governor could increase the claim limit to any number up to $200,000 by regulation. The last time the small claims limit was increased was in 2014.
It’s important to note that the Lieutenant Governor is not required to raise the monetary limit under the Provincial Court Act. Rather, the limit represents the upper boundary of any future increase in the claim limit.
What are the reasons behind the government’s decision to increase the small claims limit?
In a statement, the government indicated that the changes to the Provincial Court Act lay the groundwork to expand civil claims that can be filed through provincial courts. The Provincial Court, or “small claims court” as it’s sometimes called,” is generally easier for individuals to navigate. Diverting more litigants to small claims court instead of the Court of King’s Bench should make the justice system more accessible to Albertans.
Since the Provincial Court process is simpler, expanding access to it will allow more Albertans to represent themselves in court. The net effect of more self-represented litigants in Provincial Court will be lower legal costs for those seeking a resolution to their civil dispute. The government also noted that this diversion of litigants will free up resources in the Court of King’s Bench to focus on more complex issues.
Amendment would likely lead to higher caseload for Provincial Court
One of the knock-on effects of a higher civil claim limit would be more cases being heard in Provincial Court. While the rules and procedures in Provincial Court are simpler and generally less costly for litigants to navigate, a greater caseload could potentially lead to significant litigation backlogs. In fact, there are indications that the Provincial Court is already overburdened, with some litigants waiting months to receive dates for pre-trial conferences.
With higher-value claims, there’s typically a greater likelihood that the parties will appeal the Court’s decision. With more at stake, the party that did not receive judgment in their favour may deem it worth the extra effort. As a result, it’s possible that some of the higher-value claims would end up being appealed to the Court of King’s Bench anyways. This outcome would neutralize one of the intended aims of the amendment — freeing up resources for the higher levels of court.
Implications of more complex cases being heard in Provincial Court
Usually, claims with a higher monetary value involve more complexity. More large and complex cases being heard in Provincial Court may have unintended consequences. One such consequence relates to the disclosure of material information. Section 15 of the Provincial Court Civil Procedure Regulation reads:
“The parties shall comply with any direction or notice given by the Court to produce records and documents in the possession or power of the parties that relate to the issues in the action.”
This rule is much more informal than the rules in Part 5 of the Alberta Rules of Court, which govern disclosure in the Court of King’s Bench. For complex cases in Provincial Court, the result could be that disclosure of important documents does not occur until after a pre-trial conference or mediation. This would make it less likely that the parties would reach a settlement and increase the chances of the parties making applications for the production of documents.
Only time will tell what the impact of the amendments will be
Whether the Amendment Act achieves its purpose of enhancing access to justice for Albertans remains to be seen. Facilitating greater access to the Provincial Court for self-represented litigants may, in fact, lead to more desirable outcomes for the parties and courts alike. However, as noted, a higher civil claim limit may have unanticipated effects that undo some of the benefits of the amendments. We’ll be following these developments closely and keep you up to speed as things move along.
Contact litigation lawyers at DBH Law in Calgary for assistance with your legal claim
The trusted litigation lawyers at DBH Law have a wealth of experience guiding clients through legal disputes. From collections to estate litigation, we work on ways to resolve your issue while minimizing financial and legal risk. When you have a lot on the line, it pays to have exceptionally competent experts on your side. To schedule a consultation, reach out to us online or by phone at 403-252-9937.