Taking the man to (small claims) court

June 10, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 06/09/10 Judy

Next time the man pushes you around, check your wallet. If you’ve got $75, you can fight back.

Small Claims Court has been long called The People’s Court, but now it’s really starting to look like it. From medical negligence to car crashes and police brutality, the cases are piling up.

Why? Back in January, the provincial government raised the maximum award in cases from $10,000 to $25,000, and the courts have never been busier. That $25,000 is the now same amount allowed in Alberta, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, and more than three times the maximum in Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

It looks like the increase may have been the extra incentive the little guy with a grudge needed. It suddenly means people who previously couldn’t afford lawyers’ fees – which can start at $10,000 and go up – can now hire professional help to take on police or former employers and still have something left over if they win their case.

The court that used to be for solving low-sum disputes between neighbours and companies is now much sexier: it’s helping people take on the man, for as little as $75 in fees.

Last week, a small claims court in Kitchener heard the case of Matthew Probert, who says he was beaten up by a Waterloo Regional Police officer in April 2009 for just walking down the sidewalk. Probert was left bloodied and bruised after being arrested by an officer who suspected him of being a gang member. He wasn’t.

Still, Probert was handcuffed and taken to the Kitchener police detachment, where he was strip-searched and put in a cell naked from the waist down before having his clothing returned. The cops charged him with resisting arrest and causing a disturbance (during his arrest).

They soon dropped those charges, though, and with the help of Davin Charney, a local social-activist-turned-lawyer using small claims as a cheap way to sue, Probert hit back.

Last month, police in Waterloo Region lost another small claims court lawsuit filed after they stormed an apartment building looking for a handgun that wasn’t there. The payout to the victim wasn’t huge – $8,500 – but enough to make him feel a wrong had been righted.

This week, a small claims suit was filed in a Brampton court against an Ontario Provincial Police officer who allegedly called two young men “retards” after confiscating their lawn care equipment that he suspected was stolen. The equipment wasn’t – it belonged to one of the boy’s father.

The lawsuit says the cop arrested the pair, including a boy with Tourette’s syndrome, and taunted them by saying he’d use their equipment on his own lawn that night. The cop soon realized his mistake and never filed a report on the incident.

School boards have been busy with small claims lawsuits, too. In neighbouring Waterloo Region, boards have been struck with a string of small claims suits over everything from bullying to neglect in their schools. In one case, they settled out of court.

At least one school official has expressed concern the new higher awards leave the court system open for abuse. The worry is anyone with a beef can file a lawsuit on the cheap, skipping over the usual complaint channels and costing these institutions a lot in legal fees.

But it’s not clear there’s a wave of frivolous lawsuits hitting Ontario’s small claims court. And anyone wasting the court’s time will end up paying for it, anyway.

Instead, it looks like people are suddenly seeing small claims court as an affordable way to seek justice. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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