Small claims court as a venue for parents of bullied students
Janet Steffenhagen reported last week on her blog Report Card that parents in Ontario have threatened to bring their individual grievances against school boards before the small claims court. According to a school board official in Waterloo, the Ontario government should move to stem the tide of parental litigation before the floodgates open. Reporter Greg Mercer, of TheRecord.com, quoted John Shewchuk as saying the following:
We want to raise an alarm bell with the government . . . we think they’ve got a little bit of a problem on their hands… You can just see the herd coming over the hill. You’re going to find more people who quite frankly just don’t like the answer they got, so they’re saying ‘fine, I’m going to sue you.’
I think we’re going to see a whole lot more of this as people understand that you can go pay your 75 bucks and sue a school board, and you might just hit the jackpot. There are folks out there who can get dollar signs dancing in their eyes, and think it might be an easy score.
British Columbia’s small claims court is fascinating tool established by the government to provide access to justice for non-lawyers (or those for whom it was impossible or inefficient to hire a lawyer) with relatively small amounts of money at stake in their disputes. It is extremely user-friendly but has been subject to considerable criticism for being too favourable to debtors. Also, it gives tremendous discretion to judges – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your view of the judges.
Shewchuck’s concern about “floodgates” is a compelling one: it is in nobody’s interests for anyone and everyone with a complaint about a teacher, school or school board to start a lawsuit. And the legal system should not be exploited as a tactic to overwhelm a public institution. But this isn’t necessarily a flaw with a culture among parents; it’s a flaw with the small claims court. If there are trends emerging of plaintiffs starting lawsuits with no real merit, the system should weed them out before they cost the system too much money. As well, opening the floodgates is generally a bad thing if it is unjustified. Parents with legitimate grievances should be entitled to demand through the court system, if necessary, that school boards fulfil their obligations. If those obligations are too great, then that is a different matter.
When it comes to bullying, in particular, there is a lot to consider before advancing a lawsuit. Getting involved in a small claims proceeding may cost a frustrated parent more than $75. A legal approach to bullying should be sophisticated and well thought out. Like many things, it may be worth it for parents to visit a lawyer, even briefly, to get basic legal advise before moving ahead if its clear no progress is being made dealing directly with a school or school board.