04 June 2012

Court Services Suspends Hearing Day Fees in Supreme Court

The Law Society advises that the Court Services Branch of the Ministry of Justice — the benighted office responsible for running courts throughout the province — has suspended the processing of payments or issuance of invoices for hearing fees under the Supreme Court Civil Rules and Family Rules.

Hearing days fees are fees charged by the Supreme Court for trials. Under Appendix C, Schedule 1 of the Family Rules, hearing day fees are payable on a tariff which increases with the length of trial:
  • nothing for each of the first 3 days;
  • $500 per day for the 4th to the 10th days; and,
  • $800 per day for 11th day and onwards.
The catch, however, is that the person responsible to pay these fees isn't the party who wins or loses or the person who is awarded their costs, it's the party who sets the action for trial! This can lead to some dickering and brinksmanship about who will wind up setting an action for trial.

The Branch's decision to stop collecting these fees arises out of the court's recent decision in Vilardell v. Dunham, In this case, the claimant had asked the court for an order that she be exempted from paying the hearing fees and, once the trial was done, the court heard her argument on the issue, with submissions by the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia and Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia as intervenors. At the application, the issue was not whether the claimant could afford the fees (she could, she was a veterinary surgeon), but whether the rules' provisions for the fees were constitutional. This is the relief the claimant sought:
"(b)a declaration that the imposition of fees for the hearing of a trial infringes a right of access to justice and thereby offends the rule of law and is therefore inconsistent with the Canadian Constitution;
"(c) a declaration that the imposition of fees for the hearing of a trial infringes s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and is therefore unconstitutional;
"(d) a declaration that the imposition of fees for the hearing of a trial infringes s. 7 of the Charter and is not justified under s. 1 of the Charter;
"(e) a declaration that the imposition of fees for the hearing of a trial infringes s. 28 of the Charter by denying women the equal protection of s. 7 which denial is not justified under s. 1 of the Charter;"
I won't recite the court's analysis; it is masterful and deserves a thorough review rather than the hackneyed summary I could provide. At the end of the day, the court held that:
  • access to justice is a fundamental constitutional right which may not be abrogated by Parliament or the provincial Legislature;
  • the constitutional obligation of the provinces to administer justice does not not include the power to hinder the court's functioning;
  • the hearing day fees imposed by the province are a barrier to access to justice; and,
  • hearing day fees are unconstitutional.
According to the Law Society, "the Branch has been advised that the ruling is being appealed by government and a decision is pending regarding whether or not to file a motion to apply to the court for an order staying further proceedings." Stay tuned.

As I've said, the judgment is masterful. Here is my favourite passage, from paragraph 425:
"The court cannot fulfill its democratic function as an independent and impartial arbiter between government and the individual, or between individuals, if the government limits those who may come before the court by means of financial or procedural deterrents."