When you get involved in a lawsuit you may not expect that you’ll find yourself sitting around a table with a judge and the other party, talking about your dispute. But in BC Provincial Court small claims cases that’s what happens. You have a “settlement conference” and/or a “trial conference” with a judge before your case is set for a trial.
The role of a judge at a conference is different from their role at a trial or hearing. This eNews explains how these roles differ, and what you may expect from a judge at a conference.
The nature of a conference
A settlement conference is intended to be a confidential discussion between the parties (the people suing and being sued in a lawsuit) and a judge, exploring whether it is possible to agree on some or all of the issues that bring them to court. (If people have hired lawyers, the lawyers may also attend.)
This discussion usually takes place with everyone sitting around a table in a small conference room, not in a court room. The discussion is confidential and things said at a conference cannot be used as evidence in a trial. Because of this, there is usually no audio recording made. Also, because a judge at a conference may hear information that could not be introduced as evidence in a trial, the conference judge will usually not be the judge who presides at the trial if the case does not settle.
A conference is less formal and does not have the same traditional procedures as a trial. As a result, different judges may take different approaches, depending on their own personalities and mediation skills and the personalities and emotional states of the people involved.
For example, at a conference a judge may:
Research shows people are generally happier with mediated agreements than with decisions made by a judge at a trial. However, no one is required to settle at a conference. While judges will usually try to mediate during a conference, they may not attempt it if it is clear that one or both parties are not willing to discuss possible settlement.
In that case the judge may end the settlement conference without listening to each party’s grievances. They may simply direct that the matter be set for trial (or for a trial conference to prepare for the trial), and perhaps talk briefly about the evidence the parties will need at trial.
It’s important to understand that a conference is not a trial of the case - it is a pre-trial process to help people share information, discuss settlement, and/or prepare for trial when necessary.
Small Claims Rules
The Small Claims Rules list things a judge may do at a settlement conference or a trial conference, including:
The Rules also permit a judge at a conference to decide any issues that do not require evidence. This may include dismissing a claim, counterclaim, reply or third party notice if it is without reasonable grounds, discloses no triable issues, or is frivolous or an abuse of the Court’s process. The judge has a duty to ensure that court time is not spent on a trial when a party has no prospect of success.
Some examples of when a claim could be dismissed at a conference include:
The time available at a settlement or trial conference is limited. If there is not enough time to hear an application for dismissal or for another order, the judge may arrange for it to be heard in a courtroom on a later date rather than at the conference.
For more information about small claims conferences, see:
What can I expect at a Small Claims Settlement Conference?
What can I expect at a Small Claims Trial Conference?
Use these guides to prepare for a settlement or trial conference:
Getting Ready for court – a BC Ministry of Attorney General Small Claims “how-to” guide for claimants and defendants
Organizing documents for Small Claims Court – tips on preparing documents for settlement conferences, trial conferences and trials
Small Claims BC – Settlement Conferences – Justice Education Society video