The “People’s” Court
The Ontario Small Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice and is actually responsible for about half all civil claims in the province, which is roughly 100,000 per fiscal year. Aptly nicknamed the “People’s Court”, this court’s purpose is to provide an efficient and cost-effective means to seek legal remedy for disputes under $35,000. In theory, this court is designed specifically to address concerns relating to the equal access to justice. Claims in this court are often pursued without legal representation whatsoever which significantly cuts costs and simplifies procedure, diminishing the economic barrier that might otherwise deter individual’s from pursuing a claim. Unfortunately, no matter how well-intentioned, the utility of the court is nowhere near the ideal. While it is admirable to think it terms of the ideal, reality often differs greatly.
The pragmatic outlook of the Small Claims Court differs significantly from the ideal in two main respects. The first is its cost-effectiveness, while the other is its efficiency.
While it is true that many claims are pursued without legal representation, there are just as many litigants who do acquire some form of representation, whether that be in the form of a lawyer or paralegal. While this substantially increases the cost, it also provides a significant advantage. This is because lawyers and paralegals know the process and are less likely to become emotional or defensive than someone who is representing themselves. Even consulting with a legal professional before pursuing a claim as a self represented party adds significantly to the cost. This can easily deter people, especially those who’s claims are much less than the $35,000 maximum.
As for its efficiency, this unfortunately amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking. Before the Covid-19 pandemic that shook the world, Ontario Small Claims Court was backed up, and the process, if carried through to trial, could take anywhere from 6-15 months. However, this process has been remarkably slowed further due to the effects of the pandemic, which suspended all Small Claims Court operations for a period of about 7 months. This pushed wait times from 6-15 months, to between 13-22 months, meaning someone beginning to pursue a claim is waiting a minimum of a year, or a maximum of two years.
Between cost concerns and the growing wait times, it is clear that the “People’s Court”, is truly the farthest thing from. Delays this long undermine not only business operations, but people’s lives as they wait in line for years seeking justice. It does a disservice to the community and dispels people’s faith in a system intended on eliminating barriers to the access of justice.
What is being done to speed up this backlog of cases? As far as anyone can tell, business continues as usual, as self represented individuals and legal professionals alike adapt to the new paradigm, one marked by exceptionally long waits and growing cost concerns. While this ought to be a higher priority, it appears as though this court will simply become yet another barrier to justice, instead of to a tool to diminish such barriers as intended.
Small Claims Court is not something you might heard about on the news or talked about openly in circles outside of the legal profession, however, that does not mean changing this system should not be a priority. While there is no specific complaints procedure concerning costs and wait times, Complaints about Court Operations in Ontario can be taken to your local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP).
Here at Millars Lawyers, we not only hear your frustrations with Small Claims Court, but we share them as well. We do everything we can for our clients, and in some cases that means speaking out about a system that creates barriers to justice instead of tearing them down