True or false?
Small claims court is meant to be accessible to everyone. But there’s a hitch: the court charges filing fees to the parties involved in a case. These fees can be a barrier for many people. If this is you, there may be an easy solution. Learn how you can ask to have the fees waived, so you don’t have to pay them.
What you should know
Small claims court is a division of Provincial Court where relatively minor disputes are settled. (Most people appear on their own, without a lawyer.) The court deals with claims between $5,000 and $35,000 that involve debt, damages, personal property, or services — though certain types of claims are excluded, as the court explains here.
The court charges filing fees to all parties involved in a case. For example, to start a claim against someone, the fee is $156 for claims over $3,000. To respond to someone’s claim against you, the fee is $50 for claims over $3,000.
Fees also apply for other court services. For example, if you want registry staff to swear an affidavit you want to use in your case, it’ll cost you $31.
You can see a full list of the court fees in the rules for small claims court.
"I lent my car to a friend. He totaled it while driving drunk, so my insurance isn’t covering it. He said he’d pay me the $8,000 the car was worth, but he’s not answering my calls or texts. When I looked at bringing a small claims case against him, I learned I’d have to pay a $156 fee just to file the claim. I’m a student and barely scraping by, so I applied for a fee waiver. The court granted it, so I didn’t have to pay the filing fee. Without the court’s decision, I wouldn’t have brought the claim."
– Niko, Maple Ridge, BC
Under the court rules, if you can’t afford to pay the fees, you can ask the court to excuse (or waive) the filing fees. You do this by filing certain forms with the court and providing supporting documents that show you can’t afford to pay them. Below we walk you through the steps involved.
An order to waive fees doesn’t cover other costs or expenses
An order to waive fees doesn't cover all the expenses you might incur. For instance, you’re still responsible for paying any lawyers’ fees, process server fees, or court transcript costs you incur. But if you’re ultimately successful in your case against the other party, you may get reimbursed for your out-of-pocket expenses, such as photocopying and service fees. (Not your legal fees, though.) See this case, for example, where the court awarded filing fees, service fees, and some other expenses to the successful party.
If you apply to have the court fees waived, your application will be reviewed by a registrar. This court officer will look at your financial picture and consider your circumstances. Is there room in your budget to pay the court fees? What are your debts and assets? Even where your income is less than your expenses, if you have a significant amount of money in the bank, you’re unlikely to get your fees waived.
As well, the registrar will look at the claims you are making. They’ll consider whether your claim is reasonable and has merit. If it’s questionable, the registrar may refer your application to a judge for a decision. This can happen, for example, if:
it’s not clear whether your claim is covered by small claims court
the person you named as defendant isn’t the right person (for example, naming the president of a large company for something that happened between you and a customer service representative)
you’re suing someone for an amount that’s unreasonable and unsupported by the facts and evidence
If your claim does have merit, the registrar is more likely to waive the fees. It would be considered unjust if you can’t bring your lawsuit simply because you can’t afford to pay the fees.
Applying to have court fees waived
Say you want to start a lawsuit in small claims court, and you can’t afford to pay the $100 or $156 court filing fee. You’ll first need to fill out the notice of claim form. This involves describing what led to your claim and setting out what remedy you’re seeking. You need to complete this form so you can file it with your fee waiver application.
When you file your application to have the court fees waived, you’ll have to attach documentation in support, showing that you can’t afford to pay the fee.
If you’re on some type of government assistance — such as income assistance or employment insurance — then the only supporting information required would be proof of the government benefits, such as your three most recent benefit statements.
Otherwise, the registrar will need to see more supporting information, such as:
the last two years’ tax returns and T4 slips
copies of your last two months’ utility bills for electricity, gas, water, telephone, and cable or internet
your last six monthly bank statements from all bank accounts
copies of any mortgage or rent agreements and receipts for the last six months
any other documents that show your financial position (such as letters from collection agencies, proof of dependent children or parents, and so on)
Next, fill out the forms to apply for the court fees to be waived. There are two forms involved:
Tips for completing the forms
In completing the application to a registrar:
Note that if you complete the form on a computer, as you fill in the court copy of the form, the same information will automatically populate the applicant copy and other party’s copy.
In the section on what order you're asking for, check the box for “exempting the applicant from paying fees.” In the lines below, list any document you want to file (for example: “to file a notice of claim”).
In the section on the facts on which this application is based, explain why you can’t afford to pay the court fees.
In completing the statement of finances:
Be honest about your income, expenses, debt payments, and assets. This gives the court a full picture of your financial situation.
In item 4, list the documents you are attaching in support (these are the documents you gathered in step 1 above).
Attach the supporting documents to the statement of finances
Label the documents you gathered in support as an appendix to the statement of finances. Attach the supporting documents to the statement of finances. Now make a copy of the statement of finances and the supporting documents, so you can have a copy of everything you’ll be filing. (You don’t have to make a copy for the other party.)
The next step is to take your completed forms and supporting documents and file the paperwork at the small claims court registry.
The registry is a service counter at each courthouse in BC. In larger courthouses like Vancouver’s, there are separate counters for specific legal issues such as family, criminal, traffic, and small claims. In smaller courthouses, there may only be one registry counter for all types of legal issues.
Registry staff cannot give legal advice
You can get small claims court forms online or in person from the court registry. Staff there can tell you what forms you need and answer questions about how to fill them out. They also check for the minimum information needed for filing. But they can’t help you fill out the forms or give you legal advice.
After you file your application, the court makes a decision about whether or not you have to pay court fees.
The registrar will review your application. A court hearing is usually not required.
If the registrar allows your application, then you are done. The registrar will stamp your application and allow you to file your paperwork without paying the filing fee. You don’t have to serve the court order on the other party, unless the order says you have to.
In some circumstances, the registrar may refer your application to a judge. This might happen if the registrar questions whether the case you want to file is covered by small claims court or has merit. The judge may make an order without a court hearing. Or they may require you to appear in court to explain why you can’t afford to pay the court fees. In either case, the registry will notify you about the court’s decision.
If the registrar refuses to waive your court fees, you can appeal the decision. To do this, you make an application to a judge and ask them to review the registrar’s decision. You’ll then be given a date when you can appear in court to have a judge consider your appeal.
It’s a good idea to get advice from a lawyer if you want a judge to review the registrar’s decision (see who can help, below).
Yes, you have to make a waiver application each time you want to ask the court to exempt you from paying a fee — unless there’s a court order that says otherwise. So even if the court waives the fees for filing your notice of claim at the beginning of your case, you’ll still need to apply to waive fees if later in the case you want to be exempted from paying another court fee. As part of any later application, you’ll need to provide updated financial information.
Who can help
Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
Access Pro Bono's Everyone Legal Clinic
UBC Law School's Student Advice Program