Alberta Budget Takes Aim at Accessing Justice

By Sarah Burton

Last week, Premier Prentice released the 2015 Alberta budget. Given the current economic climate and slumping oil prices, tax hikes were widely expected. This expectation, it turns out, was well founded. Although the Alberta government declined to increase corporate tax rates or implement a provincial sales tax, the budget raised taxes on income, gasoline, alcohol, and vital statistics data (among other things). This blog post is focused on another levy placed on Albertans that isn’t getting much attention in the news – increased court fees.

Under the new budget, it will cost civil and family litigants more money to access the Courts.  A series of new fees is being imposed, and the existing tariffs are getting more expensive. For example, if you have a trial that exceeds five days in the Court of Queen’s Bench, you will now have to pay a $250 daily levy starting on the fifth day. To file a Counterclaim in the Court of Queen’s Bench, you’ll have to fork over a $150 filing fee. Court of Appeal Applications and Family Law Act claims are $50 to file. In addition, in a fee I find most disturbing, a litigant in in the Court of Queen’s Bench must pay $50 to file a Statement of Defence.

Provincial Court didn’t escape the fee hikes either. Filing a Dispute Note (the equivalent to a Statement of Defence) now costs $25. Counterclaims cost $50 for claims under $7,500 and $100 if the disputed amount is over $7,500. Overall, 14 new fees and tariff increases have been imposed on those wishing to access the courts. To see the entire budget, click here (court fees are discussed at page 123).

Why are these increases a problem? The simple answer is this: going to Court is already prohibitively expensive for many low and middle income Albertans. Generally speaking, people do not want to resort to the formal Court system. It is often perceived (and rightfully so) as a necessary evil -- a last option for people who have exhausted other methods of dispute resolution. You may not want to go to Court, but if you are in the midst of marital breakdown and you cannot agree on child custody, chances are you will end up in front of a judge. Likewise, if you are a small business owner and a supplier defaulted on a crucial contract, you may be compelled to Court to get your money back. Or, if you bought a house only to find mould hidden in the walls, you may also find yourself in a courtroom to recover the costs to repair that latent defect.

These examples are anecdotal, and are merely meant to demonstrate the real face of the litigation system. It is not all big corporations fighting over millions (although they are there). While those organizations would never notice or mind a $50 fee increase, often, courtrooms are filled with regular people working through what is one of the worst experiences of their life. To these people, the increased court fees are just one more barrier in an already impenetrable legal system.

Much has already been written about how low and middle income Albertans can no longer afford lawyers, and the impact this has on their ability to access justice and have faith in our system. I won’t delve into that here, but if readers are interested, check out these interesting pieces to get an idea (The Canadian Bar Association, Reaching Equal Justice: An Invitation to Envision and Act (Ottawa: The Canadian Bar Association, November 2013); (Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, “Access to Civil & Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change” (Ottawa, October 2013); and British Columbia (Attorney General) v Christie, [2007] 1 SCR 873). In light of this reality, however, it doesn’t seem right that we are further burdening everyday people with balancing the Alberta budget.

Some may view a $50 filing fee for defendants to be trivial, or just the cost of doing business. I would disagree. For Albertans living below the poverty line, $50 is not insignificant. Moreover, whether you think the fee is fair or not, it represents a fundamental shift in principle. Up to this point, people were not required to pay money simply to defend themselves against what might be a baseless, frivolous, or malicious claim.  

In an interview with the Calgary Herald, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis defended the new fees as a way to encourage litigants to resolve disputes through other methods, or in any event, use the more user-friendly Provincial court system (Jason Van Rassel, “Budget: Drivers face much steeper traffic fines”,  The Calgary Herald, 26 March 2015.) The problem with this rationale, of course, is that many of the fees are aimed at would-be defendants. Defendants don’t choose whether or not they are sued, or if so, whether the Claim against them is filed in Provincial Court or the Court of Queen’s Bench.

There’s no doubt that the economic reality of Alberta required some tough budget decisions. Increasing court fees were targeted likely because they seem relatively victimless (and they are definitely more politically palatable than a provincial sales tax). Before shrugging the fees off, however, I would ask readers to consider the hurdles to justice already faced by Alberta’s poor and middle income families. These families are already shouldering other aspects of the budgetary changes (like gas taxes and, if they earn more than $50,000, health care levies). Numerous studies confirm that they are already struggling to find justice in our convoluted court system. It is these people who will struggle to pay increased court fees because they have no other option.

Private corporations are vitally important to Alberta’s successful economic future. I don’t dispute that Alberta’s future depends in large part on it being a lucrative place for private businesses to set up shop. However, our priorities seem dangerously skewed when Alberta’s poor and middle income families are asked to pay off budget deficit by placing burdens on their ability access court, while profitable corporations face no increased tax obligations.