By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Last year, the Canadian Province of British Columbia established an accessible, affordable judicial option for resolving disputes, known as the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT). (see previous blog)
Now that the CRT has been operational for 9 months, I followed up with my contact in B.C. to find out how the new system is working.
According to J. Garth Cambrey, Vice Chair – Strata, Civil Resolution Tribunal:
…we opened the tribunal in July of last year for strata (condo) disputes and things are progressing well. Also, recent legislation has been passed to expand our mandate to include small claims disputes of $5,000 and under effective June 1st of this year so we are busy preparing to accept those disputes. The feedback we receive from owners and strata (HOA) corporations has been very positive in these early stages and expect to be fully staffed before June 1st.
Mr. Cambrey also provided the following status summary of the Civil Resolution Tribunal:
Features of CRT
The CRT process is designed to work online, so the Tribunal has a very informative website. Strata (condo) residents can learn about CRT, explore how CRT might assist them, explore possible solutions, and register for the tribunal process if they so choose.
Civil Resolution Tribunal, British Columbia
Reading this overview provides a good summary of the purpose and goals of CRT.
The CRT encourages a collaborative, problem-solving approach to dispute resolution, rather than the traditional courtroom model. The CRT aims to provide timely access to justice, built around your life and your needs. It does this by providing legal information, self-help tools, and dispute resolution services to help solve your problem, as early as possible.
The CRT process begins with negotiation, followed by Facilitation (a form of mediation) and, if the dispute is still unresolved, progresses to the Tribunal (adjudication) phase. Decisions of Tribunal members at the Facilitation and Tribunal phase are enforceable as court orders.
The process starts with a useful self help tool, called Solution Explorer, for owners, tenants, or members of the strata council (equivalent to a condo board in the U.S.). The online tool helps consumers determine if the CRT can assist with their dispute, and possibly even work out a solution prior to filing a CRT claim.
The parties engaged in a dispute pay a modest fee to file a CRT claim, and need not be represented by attorneys. This keeps costs low – at most a few hundred dollars if the claim progresses to the Tribunal phase. The CRT is available to handle disputes involving tenants as well as owners. Residents who have difficulty paying fees can file for a waiver. Residents who are unable to access the online process can communicate by television or mail.
An owner or tenant can have a helper (a family member, friend or colleague) assist with the application process, using the computer, translating to and from a foreign language, or as moral support during facilitation or Tribunal.
Tribunal members are experienced, practicing attorneys, mediators, and arbitrators employed part-time by the government of British Columbia. Currently, CRT has 19 staff members appointed by the Lieutenant Governor for 2-4 year terms, plus a full time Chair.
Through the Facilitation phase, any agreements or settlements remain confidential. Participants can withdraw or cancel their claim at any time up until the matter is forwarded to a Tribunal.
Once the claim enters the Tribunal phase, the case and its resolution become part of the public record.
Comparison of British Columbia’s strata laws and CRT with statutes and dispute resolution in U.S. Association-Governed Communities:
In British Columbia, strata council members have limitations on their powers. For example, under standard Bylaws, a strata council does not have the authority to fine its owners or tenants. However, strata Bylaws can be amended by resolution and a 3/4 vote to increase a strata council’s authority to fine an owner or tenant. (In The Strata Property Act, “3/4 vote” means a vote in favour of a resolution by at least 3/4 of the votes cast by eligible voters who are present in person or by proxy at the time the vote is taken and who have not abstained from voting.)
In the U.S., state laws almost universally enable association-governed communities to fine or otherwise penalize unit owners, with the exception of some older associations that were in existence prior to enactment of state law. (Incidentally, in Ontario, Provincial law prohibits a strata/condo council from issuing fines against an owner or resident.)
Note also that a property manager cannot act as proxy holder or conduct a hearing.
The CRT process itself differs from U.S attempts to handle complaints or resolve disputes involving residents and boards of homeowners, condominium, or cooperative associations.
Compared to civil court, the CRT provides a far more affordable alternative, typically resolving disputes in several weeks or months rather than several years.
Compared to an Ombudsman or state agency under the authority of the Attorney General, the CRT handles a much more broad array of disputes, according to the FAQ page of the Tribunal’s website.
The CRT process is classified as quasi-judicial, and the staff helps everyone who completes the application and pays the required fees. If the CRT cannot handle a case due to its complexity, they offer a Lawyer Referral Service. CRT staff and participants abide by very specific rules published on the website in plain language, so that owners, tenants, and council members know what to expect from the beginning.
By contrast, in a handful of U.S. states, executive level agencies tend to be understaffed, may be inadequately trained, are authorized to accept a very limited range of complaints, and only occasionally mediate or arbitrate disputes. Most disputes are dismissed for “lack of jurisdiction,” meaning that the agency does not have legal authority to handle the specific issue at hand.
So far, Cambrey says that more than 5,500 people have used the CRT website’s Solution Explorer, and 190 are in the process of resolving disputes through Facilitation.
In its early stages, B.C.’s Civil Resolution Tribunal shows promise, providing wider access to justice, and a more cost effective method of resolving many common strata (condo) disputes, when compared to standard litigation procedures.