October.3.2014

Supreme Court of Canada rules that B.C. Supreme Court Hearing Fees are Unconstitutional

Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down as unconstitutional the requirement to pay hearing fees for B.C. Supreme Court trials longer than 3 days on the basis that such fees deny some people access to the courts.

While other jurisdictions impose hearing fees, the fees in B.C. are the highest in the country: no fee for the first 3 days; $500 for days 4-10; and $800 for every day after that. The B.C.S.C. Rules allows waiver of these fees if the litigant is “indigent” (or “impoverished” under the old Rules). However, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that a significant group of middle class people, who would not qualify for a waiver of the fees, would find the fees prohibitive. The constitutional challenge emanated from a family law dispute in which the plaintiff did not qualify as “impoverished”, but the court hearing fees for the 10 day trial would match the family’s monthly net income.

The S.C.C. recognized that the province has the constitutional jurisdiction to impose court fees as part of its authority to administer justice. However, the B.C. regime creates a financial barrier to accessing the courts that contravenes the constitutional protection afforded superior courts.

The provincial government will undoubtedly be looking for an alternative scheme to recoup the cost of providing courtroom time that does not offend constitutionally protected access to justice. In the meantime, there will be no court hearing fees for trials in the B.C. Supreme Court.

http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14375/index.do

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Julie K. Lamb