You may already know that BC has three different types of courts. Let’s find out more about the Provincial Court of BC and the types of cases it handles.
The majority of BC’s court cases are heard in the Provincial Court. This is a busy and wide-ranging court. About 145 Provincial Court judges hear approximately 130,000 civil and criminal cases each year in 88 different locations across the province. A Provincial Court operates somewhere near where you live.
The Provincial Court has a broader jurisdiction than some other provincial courts in Canada. While its criminal caseload comprises the bulk of the Court’s work, the Court has jurisdiction in family law, child protection law and civil law. The scope of the Court’s jurisdiction is expanding. The most significant evolution has been in the increase in the monetary limit in Small Claims Court from $10,000 to $25,000. The scope of the court’s work is such that its judges are the personification of justice for the vast majority of British Columbians.
In civil and family matters, it is not always necessary, though, for a judge to decide an issue. Many parties can work things out for themselves through the mediation-based alternatives available in this court. As in Supreme Court, a civil case can be settled at anytime during the proceedings by the parties themselves.
Generally, the offences tried in this court are found in the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. The judges are often called upon to decide complex legal issues including Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenges, dangerous offender proceedings, mental competency hearings, drug conspiracy trials and criminal organization trials.
Sometimes, a Provincial Court Judge may make a decision that one party feels is wrong. That decision could be appealed. The Supreme Court of BC will hear any appeals of small claims and family cases, along with appeals of summary convictions or offences under the Criminal Code that are considered less serious.
Let’s look at the four main categories of cases heard in Provincial Court:
About 99% of all criminal cases in BC begin and end in Provincial Court. A much smaller number of criminal cases are heard in the Supreme Court. It is the Supreme Court that hears all the jury trials. Provincial Court judges sit alone, never with a jury. The Provincial Court hears all criminal matters, except murder committed by adults, and a few obscure offences, such as "alarming her majesty” and treason.
The court hears trials of crimes such as theft under $5000 which is the formal name for shoplifting. It also hear trials for mischief, simple assaults and more serious crimes like aggravated sexual assault or kidnapping where the accused chooses to have his or her trial in this court. If the accused is proven guilty or pleads guilty, then the court does sentencing hearings.
If the accused person is charged with a more serious crime such as manslaughter, break and enter or kidnapping, the accused has the right to choose to have a trial in Provincial Court or Supreme Court.
This is called an election. If the accused elects to have a trial in Supreme Court, then the Provincial Court conducts the preliminary inquiry to see if the Crown has enough evidence to hold a full trial.
In murder cases involving adult accused, the judge conducts a preliminary inquiry to decide if there is enough evidence to justify holding the full trial in Supreme Court.
The accused may want to have a trial in Supreme Court because they want a jury to hear their case, or they may believe the chance to have a preliminary inquiry will help them learn more about the case against them.
The Provincial Court hears virtually all criminal cases involving youth from ages 12 to 17, and that includes a charge of murder. Children under 12 cannot be charged with a criminal offence. However, if it is believed that a child under 12 may have committed a serious crime, the Family Court in Provincial Court can conduct a hearing to consider the child’s safety and well being and whether they are being cared for appropriately.
The Provincial Court of BC hears about half of all family matters in the province. Family Court helps families solve problems when children have been neglected or abused or when there are issues arising from a family breakup.
If a case deals with divorce, adoptions or the division of family property it would be heard in Supreme Court.
If it involves child protection – where the state alleges children have been neglected or abused - then the case is only heard in Provincial Court.
Very few family cases go to trial. The large majority of family disputes get resolved by an agreement between the parties that is developed with the help of lawyers and encouraged by court resources such as parenting education courses, meetings with Family Justice Counsellors and mediation services.
The Small Claims Court deals with civil cases that have a claim for $25,000 or less in damages.
The name “Small Claims” fits for some of the cases, but can be kind of misleading in others. It applies to all Provincial Court civil cases, whether for minor amounts like $200 or claims where the plaintiff is claiming up to $25,000 in damages which isn’t exactly a small claim for most people.
Small Claims Court uses simple rules and plain language so that people can represent themselves and save money. (Everyone is welcome, though, to have a lawyer if they choose.)
The fees for filing a claim are less expensive, there are mandatory and simple procedures for trying to settle the claim without a trial and, should a trial occur, it will be shorter and simpler.
There are no civil juries in the Provincial Court, including Small Claims.
With a few exceptions, the Provincial Court hears most kinds of civil disputes, such as claims for debt or damages, construction disputes, personal injury claims, recovery of personal property or enforcement of agreements or contracts involving personal property or services.
You can sue for damages regarding the purchase or sale of a piece of land in Provincial Court if the dispute is about aspects of the sale which you claim to be a breach of the sale contract. But, you would need to go to the Supreme Court if you were seeking a change in the title to the land.
Citizens can sue the provincial government in either the Provincial Court of BC or the Supreme Court of BC.
You can sue the federal government in the Supreme Court or in another court called the Federal Court. If someone named Jones was suing the government, the case would be called Jones versus Her Majesty the Queen. The Queen is the head of state in Canada, so her name is used to represent the government side in provincial or federal cases.
A large majority of cases settle without a trial, and can be settled at any time during the proceedings.
In every case that is disputed by the respondent, Small Claims Court holds a settlement conference with a judge or a mediation session with a court-appointed mediator who is not a judge. If the parties are unable to agree on a resolution, and the case has to go to trial, then there may be a pre-trial conference so that everyone is clear in advance about the legal issues and how the trial will proceed.
To become even more efficient, a Small Claims Court pilot program started in Vancouver in January 2008 for all cases filed after November 26, 2007. The pilot will replace the settlement conferences with four new streams.
The first is a summary hearing for final determination by a judge of financial debt claims such as credit card debt, loans or overdrafts.
The second is a simplified trial for claims under $5000 which will be heard by an experienced lawyer who is also a Justice of the Peace. In Vancouver, these will happen in ‘night court,’ likely to be held one evening a week from 5:00-9:00 pm for one hour. In Richmond, these simplified trials will be held during the day.
The third is mediation for claims between $5000 and $25,000. Mediators will be assigned by the BC Dispute Resolution Practicum Society, and mediation sessions will be set for two hours at 9:00 am and 1:00 pm daily.
The fourth is a one-half hour trial conference for cases which do not settle in mediation. At this conference, a judge could make orders on any number of trial matters such as length of trial, trial procedure and expert reports. The trial itself would follow the conference.
The volume of civil cases in Provincial Court is currently about half that of the Supreme Court, but that may increase if the monetary level for claims is increased to $50,000 as existing legislation would permit.
The most informal proceedings in Provincial Court involve traffic and bylaw matters. You can act as your own lawyer to dispute a traffic ticket for infractions like running a red light, speeding, or for parking violations. You can also dispute by-law offences such as walking a dog without a leash.
Judicial Justices of the Peace will hear those cases. They are judicial officers of the court who also hear applications for search warrants and for bail.
Judges are addressed as ‘Your Honour’ inside the courtroom. Outside court, they are addressed as Judge, followed by their surname, for example, Judge Smith.
The judges of this court wear black and red robes, the traditional court attire for a Provincial Court judge. People’s lives are affected in significant ways in court, so the formal attire reflects the seriousness of the court proceedings. Lawyers don’t wear robes in Provincial Court, although they do in the Supreme Court.
Members of the public do not have to wear anything special, but if you own business-like clothing, it’s a good idea to wear it when you come to court. This is a way to show the judge that you respect the court process and that you understand that a court is a more formal setting.
The Judges hear cases in the courtrooms from 9:30 am to 12:00 noon and from 1:30 to 4:30 pm Monday to Friday. It’s a really important legal principle called “the Open Courts Principle” that court proceedings are open to the public and anyone has a right to attend. It’s an important way for the Courts to be accountable to the members of the community. The registry for filing documents is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
The Provincial Court has a website which offers lots of information for the public. It will help you to learn more about the court in general, or give you more specific information such as how to start a small claims action. Go to www.provincialcourt.bc.ca.
You can learn more about the B.C. court system by exploring the additional resources on the Law Courts Education Society’s website www.lawcourtsed.ca If you’re curious about the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal for BC, there are videos on this website to help you understand how those two courts also work. Teachers and students can check out our teacher’s guide and handouts.