In the 1800s, the province's two founding colonies, British Columbia and Vancouver Island, adopted English law with its hierarchical judicial system including Magistrates’ Courts. Magistrates travelled on horseback to deal with civil small claims and criminal misdemeanours on Canada’s west coast.
The Constitution Act, 1867 (previously called the British North America Act) created the Dominion of Canada in 1867 and gave the provinces the power to create their own courts. When British Columbia joined Canada as its sixth province in 1871, Magistrates’ Courts continued but lacked judicial independence.
Magistrates had little or no formal legal training and often performed their judicial duties part-time while working at other occupations. They were treated as government employees and were not well paid. Sometimes, they were only paid a portion of the fines they imposed after finding someone guilty – which must have made it tempting to convict.
As the province grew in size and stature during the 20th century, increasingly complex laws placed more demands on magistrates. In response, they formed a professional association with prescribed professional and educational requirements, and held their first educational conference in 1947. As changes to federal and provincial legislation continued to increase magistrates’ responsibilities, their levels of legal training, professional qualifications, and ongoing judicial education increased.
In 1969, the Provincial Court of British Columbia was established with jurisdiction in criminal, juvenile, family and small claims civil matters. The Court was given a Judicial Council to represent the public and oversee judicial education and discipline, and a Chief Judge to oversee administration. The importance of judicial independence was recognized when the Court was removed from government control and was required to function independently - so that judges could decide cases impartially without the possibility of being penalized by dismissal, pay cuts, or transfer, if they decided a case against the government.
The Provincial Court experienced immense change curing the 1970s. The Judicial Council gained greater authority and determined that legal training was a prerequisite for judicial appointments. In 1974, a new Provincial Court Act was passed by the B.C. Legislature, and within a short time all lay judges had retired. In 1976, judicial council and the B.C. Provincial Judges Association adopted a Code of Judicial Ethics, becoming one of the first courts in Canada to do so. The B.C. Provincial Court also became a leader in judicial education in Canada when it adopted modern adult education techniques to improve its professional development programs.
In the 1980s, the Court participated in law reform studies commissioned the government, notably on streamlining criminal procedure and solving the problems caused for some litigants by the different powers of the Provincial and Supreme Courts in family matters. The Court also became more diversified during the 1980s as more women and people with varying ethnic backgrounds were appointed as judges and justices of the peace.
For a detailed history of the Provincial Court from its beginnings until the 1980s, see “Magistrate-Judge, The Story of the Provincial Court of British Columbia” by Alfred Watts Q.C., formerly an associate chief judge of the Court. (1986)
The Provincial Court's civil jurisdiction increased steadily over the years, from $500 in 1969 to $35,000 in 2017. The Court worked with the government to create a simplified, plain-language process for litigants without a lawyer, culminating in the 1991 Small Claims Act and Rules. The Act requires litigants in most cases to meet with a judge to discuss settlement possibilities before having a trial. These settlement conferences built elements of mediation into the Court's process for the first time, and our progressive small claims program won the 1993 Justice Achievement Award of the National Association for Court Management. In 1996, new child protection legislation included judge-mediated case conferences as an essential part of the process under the Child, Family and Community Service Act and Rules, and such conferences were later added in other family court cases.
In the 1990s, Criminal Code amendments increased the number of cases heard in the Provincial Court. Cases involving the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (enacted in 1982, with equality rights coming into force in 1985) became more and more complex. Provincial Court judges took on new roles as mediators, the number of cases increased, trials lasted longer, and judicial education adapted to meet these demands. B.C. Provincial Court judges led the nation in developing social context education designed to sensitize judges to gender and ethnic diversity issues and to enhance impartial decision making.
The increasing volume and complexity of cases, combined with insufficient resources, led to unacceptable delays in getting cases to trial. As a result, the Court recommended a more efficient process to manage criminal cases and worked with stakeholders to develop case flow management rules. The government responded by appointing some additional judges and enacting the CCFM rules.
In the next decade, the Court modernized its planning and administration, developing a strategic plan and adapting successful business practices to court management. The judges of the Court adopted this Mission Statement:
“As an independent judiciary, our mission as the Provincial Court of British Columbia is to impartially and consistently provide a forum for justice that assures equal access for all, and enhances respect for the rule of law and confidence in the administration of justice."
This Mission Statement reflects the Court's core values of independence, fairness, integrity and excellence, and its judges’ shared vision to provide an accessible, fair, efficient and innovative system of justice for the benefit of the public.
The 2000s also saw the innovation of specialized courts in BC. The Provincial Court established the Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver, followed by First Nations Courts, Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court, the Cowichan Valley Domestic Violence Court, and Victoria’s Integrated Court. Judges in various regions have also initiated designated courts focusing on particular areas like domestic violence.
In 2013, BC’s three courts - the Provincial Court, Supreme Court of B.C. and Court of Appeal, entered into a framework agreement with the province’s Attorney General to clarify the means by which the government and judiciary will work collaboratively to meet their individual and collective responsibilities to deliver timely, impartial and open justice. The agreement recognizes and respects the constitutional framework in which the Attorney General and the judiciary operate as separate and independent branches of government.
In this decade, the Court’s administration has been further reformed to increase effectiveness and efficiency by decreasing the number of administrative districts and judges with administrative responsibilities. The Court has also initiated major reforms in the way in which trials are scheduled in order to increase access to justice.
Today’s Provincial Court of British Columbia continues to seek innovative solutions to the challenges of providing an accessible, fair and efficient system of justice.