Not so “Small Claims Court”: A potential provincial court claim limit increase for Alberta

January 24, 2023 | Fergus I. Schappert, Emily Cook-Bielech

Alberta could see the maximum amount for a Provincial Court civil claim increase to as much as $200,000, potentially quadrupling the current limit of $50,000.

Background

On December 15, 2022, Bill 5, the Justice Statutes Amendment Act, 2022 (No. 2), SA 2022, c-20 (the “Amendment Act”) received Royal Assent and came into force, with some exceptions. The Amendment Act amends subsection 9(1)(i) of Alberta’s Provincial Court Act, RSA 2000, c P-31 (the “PCA”), which permits the Lieutenant Governor in Council (“LGC”) to prescribe, through regulation, the maximum monetary value of civil claims over which the Provincial Court has jurisdiction.  As a result of the coming into force of the Amendment Act, the monetary limit in subsection 9(1)(i) has been increased from $50,000 to $200,000. As this figure operates as a maximum limit, the LGC could increase the claim limit to any number up to $200,000.

While the Amendment Act gives the LGC the authority to increase the monetary limit to $200,000, the LGC is not required to do so under subsection 9(1)(i) of the PCA, which states only that the LGC may make such regulations. The LGC has yet to make a regulation giving effect to this change. As a result, for the time being, civil claims remain limited to $50,000 by section 2 of the Provincial Court Civil Procedure Regulation, Alta Reg 176/2018 (the “Regulation”).

Policy rationales behind the increase

The policy rationales behind the increase are that the Provincial Court is easier for individuals to navigate, making the justice system more accessible, and that it will help Albertans to save on legal costs. The expectation is that the increase will also free up time and resources in the Court of King’s Bench, allowing the Court to focus on more complex matters (“Bill 5, Justice Statutes Amendment Act, 2022 (No. 2)”, 2nd reading, Alberta Hansard, 30-4 (7 December 2022) at 211 (“Second Reading”)).

At the time the Legislature was debating Bill 5, concerns were raised as to whether the Provincial Court has the resources necessary to accommodate what is likely to be a highly expanded caseload, and how and why the government decided on the figure of $200,000 as a reasonable limit (Second Reading at 213, 315). For context, the British Columbia Provincial Court cannot adjudicate claims over $35,000, and Saskatchewan’s Provincial Court cannot deal with legal disputes over $30,000. The last time Alberta’s claim limit was increased was in 2014, from $25,000 to $50,000. As discussed below, these concerns may have validity.

Effects of an increase, if implemented

There are a number of potential outcomes that could result from such a large increase in the Provincial Court claim limit, such as an increase in the number and complexity of the claims. Provincial Court rules and procedure are easier to navigate than those for the Court of King’s Bench, and the process is, typically, less costly and more expeditious. We may also see a rise in self-represented claims with a higher dollar value, which may come with increased complexity. Both of these outcomes may reduce the burden on the Court of King’s Bench.

However, as was raised during the debate on Bill 5, these factors are likely to put added pressure on the Provincial Court, which is itself considered overburdened; some litigants are currently waiting many months to receive dates for pre-trial conferences and court-ordered mediations. Moreover, given the potential increase in the dollar amounts at stake in Provincial Court, we may see an increase in the number of appeals from Provincial Court decisions to the Court of King’s Bench, reducing some of the benefit in terms of the anticipated decrease in burden on the Court of King’s Bench.

Further, without corresponding changes to the rules for the disclosure of information, there may be instances where relatively large and complex claims proceed to pre-trial conference or mediation without the parties having even seen each others’ documents.  In those circumstances, the absence of such disclosure will impact each party’s ability to weigh the merits of the other’s case and thereby reduce opportunities for pre-trial settlement.  This issue does not arise under the existing framework since claims above $50,000 are currently subject to the procedural rules for the Court of King’s Bench, which govern the disclosure of information including, among other things, the nature of the documents that must be produced, and the time periods in which production must occur.  In contrast, the Provincial Court rules are more informal.  Section 15 of the Regulation, which deals with disclosure of records and documents, states:

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.

While the Provincial Court provides the parties with direction regarding document production, sometimes this does not occur until after a pre-trial conference has been held.  In the absence of changes to the rules addressing disclosure of information, the Provincial Court may be required to order document production to proceed in a similar manner to that in the Court of King’s Bench, or may be faced with an increase in applications to compel records.

Other potential outcomes and consequences may not become fully apparent until such an increase is effected.

Summary

The amendment to subsection 9(1)(i) of the PCA is intended to improve access to justice by allowing more individuals to utilize the Provincial Court’s processes, many of which are geared towards self-represented litigants. If such an increase is implemented, the Provincial Court will undoubtedly see a spike in the number of civil claims, many of which are likely to be more complex than the claims that have been typically adjudicated at the Provincial Court level. Whether the Provincial Court is adequately prepared for such an increase, and has been allocated the appropriate resources to address it, remains to be seen.

For further details, please refer to the Amendment Act (PDF) and current PCA.

If you have any questions regarding the changes to the PCA, please contact Miller Thomson’s Commercial Litigation Group.

Disclaimer

This publication is provided as an information service and may include items reported from other sources. We do not warrant its accuracy. This information is not meant as legal opinion or advice.

Miller Thomson LLP uses your contact information to send you information electronically on legal topics, seminars, and firm events that may be of interest to you. If you have any questions about our information practices or obligations under Canada's anti-spam laws, please contact us at privacy@millerthomson.com.

© 2023 Miller Thomson LLP. This publication may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety provided no alterations are made to the form or content. Any other form of reproduction or distribution requires the prior written consent of Miller Thomson LLP which may be requested by contacting newsletters@millerthomson.com.