My Small Claims Court Experience
On October 24, 2018, I visited the Brampton Small Claims Court located at 7765 Hurontario Street. This was the first time I had ever been to a courthouse and was intrigued by what I saw. There were no trials running that day however, I did see many different motions that took place. These motions were related to unpaid rent, unpaid loans, default judgement, adding defendants and for amending a plaintiff’s claim. In this observation report, I will reflect on what I observed during my visit and relate it to legal concepts.
When I first walked in, there was no front desk so all those attending had to know where they were going. The matters were posted beside each court room and those would be the events for the day. Initially, the area was difficult to navigate however after understanding the system, it was easy to determine the different hearings and where they were to be held.
There were 5 different active courtrooms the day I went to the courthouse. In the morning, the clerks would post the different schedules for the day beside each door and this was also done during the end of the day. I tried to enter the settlement conference courtroom however I was told those were private. Three courtrooms that day were dedicated to settlement conferences. The courtroom had a judge in the back with a witness stand on the right side and a clerk in the front. The clerk’s role was to pass documents to the judge for review and he would make hand written notes on each document.
In one situation, a plaintiff did not appear for their own motion which I found quite strange. I learned that sometimes defendants do not attend some motions as by not attending, it means that they are fine with the motion that is being proposed. Overall the whole process was very informal and flexible.
The judges were friendly when conversed with outside the courtroom (with students) but in the courtroom, they were very strict with the proceedings and straight to the point. They did not permit any discussion that was unnecessary and irrelevant to the facts. For example, there was one defendant who was noted in default judgement and ordered to pay damages which he agreed to. He had constantly not met any deadline to pay and brought up different reasons such as having his mortgage license revoked. The defendant discussed with the plaintiff regarding his inability to find a job to which the judge stated that these matters are not relevant to the case and that the defendant is required to pay according to the judgement.
It was from this experience I realized that obtaining a judgement in court is not as easy as it may seem as there are many tactics than can be used to delay judgement. In one case, the defendant did not file documents after a hearing and asked the judge for a motion to allow them to file. This case had gone on for two years. According to the plaintiff, over that time (2 years), the defendant continued to file different motions to delay the hearings and purposefully ignored correspondence emails. The plaintiff claimed to the judge that the defendant’s file was over 1,000 pages and they will need time to go through it. The judge concluded that he will grant the motion and provide a trial date that was agreeable to both parties and that the trial date was “firm to both parties”. He then issued costs fixed at $300 to whomever wins the proceeding. While I found this sum low, I do understand that the Small Claims Court’s main goal is to provide an expeditious trial at a low cost.
In one situation, the plaintiff was asking the judge for costs as the defendant admitted to liability and proposed a payment plan many months ago yet had not paid any amount. The judge told the plaintiff that there is no point in seeking costs against the defendant and he does not think it is necessary. I was surprised by this statement as I thought costs should be applied as this motion would be an unnecessary expense by the plaintiff had the defendant paid.
When I first entered a courtroom, the judge was discussing how there was no swearing in the affidavit and the month was not properly dated. The judge then asked the plaintiff to go to the witness stand to swear certain statements. He was given the option of swearing on a religious book or giving an oath of affidavit and in this case, he chose the Bible. I was amazed to see how lenient the judges were and that is reflected in the Rules of the Small Claims Court in Section 1.03 (1) where it states that the “Rules shall be liberally construed to secure the just, most expeditious and least expensive determination”. Instead of asking the plaintiff to correct his mistake, the judge allowed it to be corrected on the spot.
There was one incident where one plaintiff would not leave the courtroom and was not acting professionally. He was not prepared for his case and would not listen to the judge’s orders. After he interrupted another proceeding, security was called as he would not leave the courtroom. Once security was called he left the courtroom. Based on this observation, I saw how those who are not well versed in law can become frustrated with the proceedings as they are unaware of the rules and procedure.
It is based on the above experience that I realized how essential paralegals are to the legal system. Paralegals give an opportunity for the average person to have a professional representative who has the knowledge to maneuver within the legal system at an affordable cost. Those that are not represented by a professional may face frustration as they do not fully understand the process.
What I was surprised to see was that there were very few paralegals present in the courtroom. Most were self represented and the minority had a lawyer/paralegal as a representative. This is a testament to how access to justice is working effectively. Some were well versed in the field of law and there were others who were there for the first time. Even those that were well versed in law did not have an advantage as there was an even playing field between those with legal experience and those without. This is a testament that access to justice is working effectively in our legal system. I also observed how statues are a key source of law in Ontario. Judges occasionally referenced the Courts of Justice Act when making decisions and everyone was subject to the same rules.
Based on my visit, I found that access to justice is vital to society and the functioning of an effective legal system. Every single Canadian has the opportunity to access justice whether they know the legal system or not. The Small Claims Court makes it easy to present a case and if any error is made, it can easily be corrected with minimal costs. Some of the disputes brought before the court are in the thousands of dollars and if a lawyer were to represent these cases, it would not be practical to go to court. There was one plaintiff who brought forward more than 15 motions for default judgements ranging from a couple thousand dollars to over ten thousand dollars for unpaid debts.
No judge would engage in any unnecessary dialogue with any member of the courtroom other than what pertained to the legal matter. This is important in upholding the Rule of Law in that the judiciary is independent and no one can influence a judge. They must remain independent and free from bias. Only once the court proceedings had ended did the judge give an opportunity for students to ask questions.
To conclude, my experience in the Small Claims Court allowed me to reflect on how access to justice and the rule of law are such an essential underpinning to society. Everyone is equal before the law and has an affordable option to settle disputes legally. There is no bias in the courtroom and the judge stayed neutral towards all cases. The court cases were also heard in a speedy manner so no one would have to wait long for their motion to be heard. While there were lawyers present in some situations, it did not affect where a motion was granted or not as the judge considered the merits of each side’s argument. Now I fully comprehend how essential the Small Claims Court is and how paralegals are able to fill a void that is greatly needed in the legal system.