What you should know
A lawsuit is a way to get money or other relief if something’s gone wrong. It might be getting poor service under a contract, being injured in a car accident, getting fired unfairly, or not getting repaid a debt.
The party who feels they were wronged starts a lawsuit by filing documents in court. The other party files documents in response. If the parties can’t settle the case, it goes to trial, where each side presents evidence and the court decides the outcome of the case.
Before starting a lawsuit, it’s almost always best to try solving the problem another way. Going to court can end up costing more than a dispute is worth. It’s rarely quick. Court proceedings are open to the public, and you may prefer to keep the details of your dispute private.
There are other ways to resolve disputes that can be cheaper, faster, and more effective. For example:
- Negotiation involves the people in a conflict discussing issues to try to reach an agreement. You work out a solution together that fits both of your interests.
- With mediation, the people in a conflict meet with a neutral person (a mediator), who helps them find a solution they agree on. The mediator helps you come to an agreement, but they don’t decide for you.
- With arbitration, the people in a conflict hire a neutral person (an arbitrator) to make decisions about their dispute they will be bound by. Arbitration is less formal and more flexible than court, and private.
Learn about options for “alternative dispute resolution” in our information on resolving disputes without going to court.
In British Columbia, where you bring a lawsuit depends on the dollar value of the claim and its subject.
Claims for up to $5,000 must usually be taken to the online Civil Resolution Tribunal. This tribunal is an online system people can use without the help of a lawyer. There are some exceptions, such as where the tribunal considers the case to be too complex or if the claim is a certain type of dispute (such as a claim that affects land). We explain this more shortly.
For most disputes worth between $5,000 and $35,000, the case can be brought in Small Claims Court. This court is also designed for people to act for themselves. For more, see our information on Small Claims Court.
Claims for more than $35,000 generally go to the BC Supreme Court.
Where you bring a lawsuit also depends on its subject matter. Certain types of claims must be brought in a specific court. For example, a lawsuit against the federal government must be brought in Federal Court. See our information on our court system in a nutshell for a high-level overview.
Certain types of civil claims must be brought in BC Supreme Court, regardless of the dollar value involved. For example:
- claims to do with an interest in land or that affect land (such as a builders lien claim)
- claims involving defamation
- claims involving a will or estate
- an application for an order for divorce
As well, there are certain types of claims where a law says the claim must go to a tribunal. This is a body similar to a court that hears disputes and makes decisions in a specific area. For example, a claim for workers’ compensation benefits after a workplace injury must be brought to a tribunal that specializes in those types of claims.
While for the most part the online Civil Resolution Tribunal deals only with claims up to $5,000, there are two exceptions:
- The tribunal deals with most disputes involving strata properties (condos), of any dollar amount.
- For motor vehicle accidents taking place in BC after April 1, 2019, injury claims up to $50,000 must be brought to the tribunal.
The law in BC creates a time window to bring a legal action. Once this window, called a limitation period, has passed, it’s too late to start a lawsuit.
Most claims have a limitation period of two years. But some types of claims have different limitation periods. For example, a lawsuit to enforce a court judgment has a limitation period of 10 years.
The limitation period starts to run once a person “discovers” their legal claim. A claim is said to be discovered on the first day you knew, or reasonably ought to have known, all the following:
- an injury, loss or damage occurred,
- it was caused at least partly by an act or omission (something neglected or left undone),
- the act or omission was that of the person you’re suing, and
- a court proceeding would be an appropriate way to seek a remedy.
For example, let’s say you take your car for engine repairs. It’s in the shop for a month. When you get it back, you see the car has a new problem — the back bumper has a major dent. The limitation period starts on the day you discovered the car was damaged and realized (or reasonably ought to have realized) it was the repair shop that did the damage.
If you discovered a legal claim before June 1, 2013, an older limitations law applies. It had different limitation periods for different types of claims. For example, a claim for breach of contract or repayment of a debt had a six-year limitation period.
A lawsuit begins with a document you prepare, file with the court (or tribunal), and deliver to the party you’re suing.
This document is called different things depending on the court. In Small Claims Court, it’s called a notice of claim. Before the Civil Resolution Tribunal, it’s called a dispute application form.
The details of how you complete the form, file it, and deliver it also vary depending on the court. For the process in Small Claims Court, see our information on suing someone in Small Claims Court.
For the process before the Civil Resolution Tribunal, see the tribunal’s website.
For the process in Supreme Court, see the court’s Online Help Guide.
As you consider your next steps, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions.
Is it worth it to sue? Is bringing a lawsuit going to cost you almost as much as you’re claiming? Even if you are representing yourself or not paying for legal representation, you’ll have to pay fees and expenses to make a claim — the amounts depend on what court you’re suing in and what evidence you put forward.
Is the emotional toll worth it? There’s also the emotional cost of being in a lawsuit. The conflict you’re in might extend for a year or two or even longer. Consider the complicated and personal questions you might have to ask or answer.
Will you get paid, even if you win? If you bring a lawsuit and win, it's up to you to collect the money. If the person or company you’re claiming against can’t pay, you won’t get your money. If you’re dealing with a company, check that they’re still in business. See our information on getting your judgment paid for options if the person you sue doesn’t pay.
Who can help
You do not need a lawyer to go to Small Claims Court or bring a claim to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. But you'll probably better understand the process, as well as the strength of your case, if you get legal advice. If you have limited means, you might be able to get legal help from pro bono services, a student legal clinic, or an advocate. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.
The Civil Resolution Tribunal’s website explains how to bring a claim to the tribunal and what to expect from each stage of the process.
The BC government website has how-to guides on Small Claims Court, including making a claim, replying to a claim, serving documents, getting ready for court, and getting results.
The Supreme Court BC Online Help Guide, from Justice Education Society, provides step-by-step information on each stage of a lawsuit before that court.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in October 2017
Time to read: 7 minutes