Last Updated: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 | 7:18 PM PT
The B.C. government has announced reforms to civil and family courts that it says will make justice more accessible, affordable and responsive to ordinary citizens.
The changes, which go into effect next July, include:
- The first three days of trial time will be free, with litigants required to pay court fees if trials run longer. Fees currently start at $156 for a half day or less.
- Court fees for filing or responding to a legal claim will be eliminated for those who try mediation before filing a civil action.
- New rules to reduce conflict during family court matters.
- Simplified procedures in civil cases where the amount in dispute is $100,000 or less, as well as new restrictions on questioning of parties and the amount of paperwork needed.
The reforms, which the province’s legal community started working on in 2004, were overdue, Attorney General Mike de Jong admitted Tuesday.
"For many people — too many people, in fact — access to justice has become unaffordable," De Jong said. "Costs are one thing, time in court is another."
De Jong’s predecessor, Wally Oppal, said the reforms should lead to speedier procedures.
"The number of trials in the Supreme Court have decreased by approximately 50 per cent over the past 10 years," Oppal said, "and those trials that have proceeded … have increased in length by 100 per cent."
Former attorney general Geoff Plant said the reforms will finally change the rules of procedure.
"Our rules go back to the 19th century," Plant said. "Our playbook has not served the public interest in my view for a very long time."
B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Brenner, long an advocate for change, said ordinary citizens should be delighted.
"An affordable and accessible justice system is fundamental to society," Brenner said. "These new rules will do just that."
However, an opposition critic said more could have been done.
"If the Campbell government were serious about access to justice services, they would restore the dramatic cuts they made to legal aid funding," justice critic NDP MLA Leonard Krog said.
"These cuts have left a large number of lower income British Columbians unable to access justice services, and today’s announcement doesn’t fix that problem."
The B.C. Liberals cut legal funding by 40 per cent in their first term, according to Krog.