Small claims - What is Small Claims Court?

PDF version of Guide #1 - What is small claims court?

In small claims court, people can settle their differences in cases worth anywhere up to $35,000. It has less formal and complicated rules and procedures than Supreme Court. For example, the forms you use in small claims court are the “fill-in-the-blank” type.

Effective June 1, 2017, the Civil Resolution Tribunal, established under the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act, has jurisdiction to resolve certain claims of $5,000 and under.  These claims must go through the CRT before going to Provincial small claims court. Effective April 1, 2019, the CRT has jurisdiction to resolve certain accident claims up to $50,000. Provincial small claims court can receive a small claim if certain conditions apply.

Effective July 1, 2022, those conditions are:

  • the tribunal, on or before June 30, has made a final decision in relation to the claim, and a party has filed a notice of objection with the Civil Resolution Tribunal under section 56.1 [a notice of objection renders the CRT decision non-binding]
  • the Tribunal does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the claim
  • the Tribunal refuses to resolve the claim
  • the Provincial Court orders that the Tribunal not adjudicate the claim
  • the person is in a class of persons exempted by regulation

If you are thinking of making a claim for over $5,000, (or if after April 1, 2019 a claim in the case of a motor vehicle accident up to $50,000) in small claims court or making a claim of proceedings previously initiated before the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), or if you're already involved in a case, this guide is for you. It answers questions about the court and it describes what happens in an ordinary small claims court case. Even if you do hire a lawyer to represent you, it is helpful to know what to expect.

If you disagree with the decision from the Tribunal that was made on or after July 1, 2022, these guides are not for you. Please visit the Supreme Court of British Columbia’s website, and review their self-help guide - Judicial Review.

Do I have to know "legal language"?
What kinds of cases go to small claims court?
How to use this guide
Small claims court sample case
  Step 1: The notice of claim
  Step 2: The reply
  Step 3: The settlement conference(s)
  Step 4: The trial
  Step 5: The payment hearing
Frequently asked questions

Do I have to know "legal language"?

No. There aren't many legal words you will have to know to find your way around small claims court, but there are a few. Here are the main ones:

  • The claimant is the person who makes a claim in small claims court or the initiating party who made the initial request in the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) with respect to a dispute
  • The notice of claim is the form the claimant uses to make the claim
  • The defendant is the person who is being sued or the person at the CRT who was required to make a response - the one the claim is made against
  • The reply is the form the defendant uses to answer the notice of claim
  • The filing party is the person who completes and files a Notice of Civil Resolution Tribunal Claim in small claims court
  • The notice of Civil Resolution Tribunal Claim is the form the filing party uses to bring a claim to Provincial small claims court that was previously at the CRT
  • The response is the form filed by the responding party in the CRT and continued as a reply when filed with the notice of Civil Resolution Tribunal Claim
  • Serving a document means giving it to another person in whatever way the law requires

What kinds of cases go to small claims court?

The cases that come to small claims court, which is part of the Provincial Court of British Columbia, involve smaller amounts of money than in the Supreme Court. The highest amount that the claimant can sue for is $35,000. Effective April 1, 2019, the Civil Resolution Tribunal has the jurisdiction to resolve certain accident claims up to $50,000. This includes all claims listed on the notice of claim or filed with the Notice of Civil Resolution Tribunal claim, no matter how many defendants there are, and it includes the value of any goods that the claimant is asking for.

It does not include any interest or expenses that the claimant might be entitled to. The expenses that anyone can claim in small claims court are quite limited, and, in many cases, amount to no more than the filing fee and the cost of document service.

There are some kinds of cases that cannot be handled in small claims court, no matter how little money is involved. The resolution of certain disputes between residential landlords and tenants, as well as libel and slander suits and cases involving the title to land, cannot be tried in small claims court.

If you are trying to enforce an order from the BC Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), please first consult their website. This website explains the steps to enforce a monetary order, including the final step of enforcement through small claims court. If you are enforcing an order from the RTB or the Civil Resolution Tribunal, it is not necessary to begin a new claim with a notice of claim or notice of Civil Resolution Tribunal claim. You may want to review the small claims court Guide #7 - Getting results.

How to use this guide

On this page, you will find a sample small claims court case initiated in Provincial small claims court that outlines the steps involved in the small claims court process. For more information about any of the steps along the way, see the other guides in this series. For answers to particular problems or questions, read the small claims court rules or seek legal advice.

Note: Occasionally, the Ministry of Attorney General and the Provincial Court run pilot projects to
explore ways to improve the small claims court. If the registry where your case is filed is running a pilot project, it might not follow the process in this guide. You can find more information about the pilots underway on the Government of BC website under small claims court .

Small claims court sample case

The facts:  Lois loaned $10,000 to Norman. He agreed to pay it back in six months. On the deadline, Norman only paid Lois $500. She has tried writing and calling him, but he avoids her. Finally, she decides her only choice is to sue.

Step 1: The notice of claim

The first thing Lois has to do is get a notice of claim form from the Provincial small claims court registry near her, from the Government of BC website under small claims forms or from a Service BC office and fill it out. The instructions are included with the form. Effective August 16, 2021, Lois will also need an address for service form to complete and file with the registry. There is no fee to file this form.

Lois might wish to use the online Filing Assistant on the Court Services Online website to help her complete the form. The filing assistant will prompt her through a series of questions that will help her complete the required forms. The results of her answers will be put in the form. She could then print it. She could also print the form and complete it manually.

Lois then takes both of the completed forms to the registry where the clerk behind the counter checks it for completion. She pays the filing fee for the notice of claim, and the clerk gives her back several copies of the forms, a blank reply form and blank address for service form. This is called "filing" the notice of claim.

The blank reply form, the blank address for service form, and one of the copies of the notice of claim and Lois's address for service form is for Norman. This will tell him what the lawsuit is about and will give him the forms he needs to answer it. Lois knows that he is avoiding her, so she asks a friend to take the papers to Norman. If Norman lives in BC, he has 14 days from the day he received the papers, to file his reply. If he resides outside of BC, he has 30 days to file his reply.

Step 2: The reply

When Norman receives the notice of claim, he is upset. He does owe Lois money, but it was supposed to be a no-interest loan and now she says he agreed to pay 10 per cent interest. And $700 of the money she gave him was payment for repairs he did to her car. He has already repaid $500, so he figures he still owes her $8,800. He would pay that now if he could. Norman admits that he owes her $8,800 but says $700 of the money Lois gave him was payment for repairs he did to her car. He denies that he owes any interest and asks for a payment schedule. He says he could pay $100 a month until the $8,800 is paid.

Norman completes the reply and address for service form and takes them to the small claims court registry where Lois filed the notice of claim (the address was on the form.) The clerk behind the counter checks the forms and accepts them for filing. There is a fee to file the reply but no fee to file the address for service form.

The registry now mails or emails a copy of Norman's reply and his address for service form to Lois.

Step 3: The settlement conference(s)*

Next, Lois and Norman both receive a notice either in the mail or by email, inviting them both to attend a settlement conference. The notice will also tell them how to attend the settlement conference and how to submit any documents they will be relying on. At the settlement conference, the judge looks at the notice of claim, and the reply and asks Lois and Norman a few questions. The judge tries to see if there is any chance the two can agree.

Lois eventually agrees that the loan was supposed to be interest-free, but they can't agree about the $700 for car repairs. Lois also isn't happy about waiting to get back the $8,800.

The judge can make a payment order right then for the $8,800. There will have to be a trial about the $700 difference. The judge tells them about the type of evidence each of them will need to bring to trial.

If the case will take more than half a day, they agree on a date for a trial preparation settlement conference (essentially a second settlement conference). At the trial preparation settlement conference, the judge helps Lois and Norman further prepare their case for trial. The judge tries again to see if the two can agree. If not, the judge makes sure they are ready for trial and he sets the final trial time estimate.

If the case will take less than half a day, a trial preparation settlement conference is not required and they agree on a date for trial.

*Settlement conferences do not occur in all circumstances. For more details regarding settlement conferences, review the small claims rules on the BC Laws website. You may also wish to review the small claims court Guide #6 - Getting ready for court.

Step 4: The trial

At the trial, the judge asks Lois and Norman to tell their story. Then they can each reply to what the other person says and call witnesses. The judge accepts the evidence from Lois' mechanic that Norman did not do the work he said he did. The judge's decision is that Norman must pay Lois the $700 remaining on the loan.

Then the judge asks Norman how he plans to pay the judgment. Norman says that $100 a month is still all he can afford. Lois says she doesn't believe him, and that she needs the money sooner. They agree to come back at a later date for a payment hearing.

Step 5: The payment hearing

Norman must complete a Financial Statement and file it, along with supporting documents, with the registry at least seven days before the payment hearing. He must then also serve the Financial Statement and any attached documents on Lois at least two business days before the hearing.

At the payment hearing, the judge asks Norman questions about his finances, and Lois can ask Norman questions too. Finally, the judge orders Norman to pay $250 a month plus $500 in April, after he receives his income tax return.

Frequently asked questions

What if the defendant ignores the whole thing?

This often happens. A person receives a notice of claim and does nothing. If that happened to Lois, she would have to go back to the small claims court registry after the time limit was reached for Norman to reply. If she could prove that Norman had been properly served with the papers, she would get an order for payment against Norman for the amount she was claiming and pay the filing fee for this order. This is called a default order. She could then enforce that order as if it had been made by a judge following a trial.

What will it cost me for my case?

Costs depend on how you handle your case, how the defendant responds to your claim and how you choose to proceed if you win your case. There are fees set by the small claims rules for registry services and sheriff services. You can review the list of the fees online by reading the small claims rules on the BC Laws website.

In addition to the set fees, there may be expenses and interest added on to the total owing. If any costs are to be added to anyone's case, the judge or registry staff will make the decision. In most situations, the fees and expenses can be added to the total amount the unsuccessful party has to pay. This means the costs the defendant had to pay may be charged against the claimant if the defendant is successful with a counterclaim.

If you hire a lawyer to represent you, the fees you pay to the lawyer cannot be added to your judgment. If you cannot afford the registry fees, you may make an application to the registrar to be exempted from paying the fees.

If I win my case, am I guaranteed to get my money?

Unfortunately, no. The court can give you tools you can use to collect your money - such as a payment hearing or a garnishing order. In the most extreme cases, when someone deliberately ignores a court order, a judge can send a debtor to jail. But some people will not pay and some cannot. It is frustrating to spend time and money to prove a claim in court and then still be unable to collect what is owing to you. If you you want to make a claim in small claims court, or in any court, for that matter, you should first consider what your chances are of collecting if you win.

What if I don't like the judge's decision?

A small claims court decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. An appeal will cost additional money, take time and the result may not be any different.