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Workplace disputes can opt for online resolution

Courts remain closed to most matters, but conflict mediation services are still available
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed B.C.’s law courts to suspend regular operations | Rob Kruyt

Even though courts across the province are hearing only essential and urgent matters, B.C. businesses and residents can still resolve conflicts and disputes while maintaining social-distancing guidelines.

“We’re wanting to make sure that parties know that they can continue to resolve their disputes, because otherwise we’re going to have a big backlog,” said Shannon Salter, chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT).

The CRT – Canada’s first online tribunal – resolves motor vehicle disputes of up to $50,000, small claims disputes of up to $5,000, and strata property, societies and co-operative associations disputes of any amount. The tribunal remains fully operational, with staff members working remotely. The CRT is also not issuing any default decisions or orders until at least after May 15, has the authority to extend deadlines and limitation periods while B.C.’s emergency declaration persists and will exercise its discretion to waive fees for anyone who is in a difficult financial situation due to COVID-19. Those on a government assistance program are already eligible for the CRT’s fee waiver program.

While the CRT has not yet seen an increase in applications, Salter said COVID-19 could create new conflicts.

“You can imagine an increase in the number of disputes about breaches of contract, about debts and loans, and about shared housing situations. We already get a fair number of those kinds of disputes, but I expect that those will increase over time because of COVID-19.”

According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, 10 courts have been identified as hubs for hearing urgent court matters. Time limitation periods for legal matters have been suspended during B.C.’s state of emergency. The BC Human Rights Tribunal also remains operational.

Effective this week, parties to civil and family matters can schedule a COVID-19 telephone conference hearing if their matter was adjourned because of the BC Supreme Court's suspension period, which has been extended to May 29.

Between trying to work things out directly with a colleague, employer or roommate and taking that other party to court, there are other dispute resolution options available that allow individuals to stay socially isolated.

“Our goal is to give people a little reprieve from conflicts they never imagined having to deal with,” explained Lori Charvat, Mediate BC chairwoman and Sandbox Consulting principal.

Mediate BC recently launched a Quarantine Conflict Resolution Service: a six-week pilot project that connects parties struggling with quarantine-related disputes with mediators. The service runs on a sliding fee scale based on each party’s income, starting at $20 per hour for someone who makes $45,000 per year or less.

Issues between neighbours, roommates, landlords and tenants, along with workplace concerns related to shared workspaces or working from home all potentially fall under the scope of Mediate BC’s new low-fee pilot project.

“Small businesses right now are having to make huge decisions and really impactful decisions. Things like: do they pay their commercial lease or not, do they lay off employees or not,” said Amanda Semenoff, a civil mediator and project manager of the Quarantine Conflict Resolution Service.

“It’s pretty uncommon for people to have a business continuity crisis plan that’s been worked out ahead of time, and so you’re having small business partners trying to figure out what to do and often having very different ideas of what will get them through this. Sometimes mutually exclusive ideas of how you move forward.”

Business partner disputes, conflicts between employees who continue to work in stressful environments, issues between roommates working from home in a small shared space and workplace communication issues are all examples of disputes that may benefit from mediation, and may be eligible for Mediate BC’s service.

Little stuff, Semenoff said, becomes big stuff when organizations go through transitions and employees are under increased stress.

According to a 4,600-person Statistics Canada web survey, 54% of Canadians aged 15 and older are very or extremely worried about the health of a household member, and 36% are very or extremely worried about their own health.

Charvat said it’s too early to assess how the public responds to Mediate BC’s pilot project, but she sees clear applications for remote and virtual mediation services post-COVID-19.

“For people who live in rural and remote communities, this is a long time coming,” she said. “One of the goals is that we can get better at this and then serve our communities that aren’t Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna.”

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