Peter Dobson hoped cashing in on his small claims court victory would be a complete success.
After all, he had it in black and white: a judgment that said the contractor he’d hired to build a second-floor addition to his Nova Scotia home owed him nearly $20,000 for not finishing the job.
Seven years later, Dobson is still trying to get his money back.
Legal experts warn that victories in small claims court do not mean plaintiffs will receive money, especially when defendants refuse to pay.
“I don’t have any faith that we’ll be able to raise money,” Dobson told Go Public. “When it comes to an individual like this… the small claims court is totally ineffective.”
In late 2014, Dobson hired Nelson Grosse and his company, which at the time was called Grosse Contracting, to build a second-story addition to his home in Lake Echo, N.S., a $117,500 job according to Dobson’s statement of claim. presented before the court. .
Dobson says that after a couple of months, the work stopped abruptly and the contractor did not respond to his calls. That’s when Dobson hired other companies to finish the job.
He says that in November 2015 he decided to sue his former contractor to force him to pay what he owed.
And that’s what the court did in May 2016, ordering Grosse (who also goes by Larry Nelson Grosse) to pay Dobson nearly $21,000 for unfinished work, including court fees.
All these years later, Dobson says he hasn’t seen a dime. “We never heard from him,” she said.
More plaintiffs cannot collect
Court documents and provincial registry records show at least eight other people and companies have successfully sued the same contractor. Go Public reached out to five of those plaintiffs who say they haven’t been paid.
Three went to small claims court and are owed a total of nearly $32,000 in judgments.
The other two are owed a total of more than $140,000 after taking their cases to provincial court, where plaintiffs can sue for larger amounts.
Small claims courts hear cases in which plaintiffs sue for less than a certain amount of money, and in theory cases can be heard and decided quickly and cheaply, without legal representation.
The latest figures from Statistics Canada show that 565,000 small claims court cases were filed in Canada between 2018 and 2022. Those figures do not include Newfoundland, Quebec or Manitoba, which have not yet responded to the survey.
How to climb a mountain
British Columbia lawyer James Legh, who specializes in civil law, compares winning a small claims case to climbing a mountain.
“When you get your judgment, you’re only halfway there,” he said.
“The problem is that there are people who don’t want to pay… and you really have to decide: is it worth the effort, the money and the time to go after people?”
Winning a small claims lawsuit, according to Legh, is “just an acknowledgment by the court that someone owes you money.”
He says that unlike family court, which has an enforcement department that helps collect spousal and child support, those who win in small claims court are on their own to try to collect their money.
This can be difficult to do, he explains, because it requires digging up information about the person or company’s financial situation: how much money they make, what properties they own, even what debts and expenses they face.
This is the information the plaintiff needs to place a lien on the defendant’s property or garnish his wages and bank accounts.
Go Public contacted Grosse by phone and asked why he has not yet paid the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owes his former clients.
“I have no comment on any of that at this time,” he said in response.
Legal game of cat and mouse.
Dobson says trying to track down his former contractor’s assets to collect what he was awarded in court is like a legal game of cat and mouse.
When Grosse didn’t pay, Dobson took the next step recommended by the province and filed the judgment with the provincial Personal Property Registration System (PPRS), which provides information about a business’s assets (such as equipment and vehicles) to see if he could charge that amount. shape.
But no goods were found.
Grosse has operated under several different business names over the past 21 years, according to a Nova Scotia business registry.
Dobson says he also found a residential property in East Preston, N.S., with Grosse’s name on the title, but when he tried to register a lien against it, he discovered his former contractor’s name had been removed.
He thought he finally caught a break in late 2017, when someone tipped him off that Grosse had an insurance settlement coming after a garage fire.
Dobson says he hired a lawyer and paid more than $600 out of pocket to obtain a subpoena forcing Grosse to answer questions, in person, about any money he received.
“He just completely ignored the subpoena,” Dobson told Go Public.
Dobson could have tried to obtain another injunction for contempt of court. That’s where courts can force defendants to go to jail, face a fine, or temporarily seize their property until they pay. But Dobson says he decided not to take this action after learning it would cost him thousands more in legal fees.
Edmonton AM6:46The provincial government is making big changes to the way small claims courts operate.
Legh, the civil law attorney, says even a contempt court order is no guarantee of payment.
“These people, even if we take them to court, are likely to say, ‘I don’t have anything,'” he said. “So the obvious problem is why are you going to spend a lot of money after evil?”
Nova Scotia Department of Justice tells Go Public publication information for small online court plaintiffs, but has no plans for an enforcement branch, nor does it have plans to make changes to the way plaintiffs can collect judgments.
The case shows the “domino effect” that can occur when people and companies refuse to pay after losing a lawsuit, says civil litigation lawyer Tanya Walker of her Toronto office.
She says the small courts have a lot of cases and are a little overwhelmed.
“That’s why it would be great to see in the future the creation of a separate court to help litigants with collection,” Walker said.
But he warns that people who win cases can end up waiting a long time to see their money, or end up with nothing at all. Judgments are valid for up to 10 years from the date of issuance, depending on where the plaintiff lives.
“Even if a court is created to assist in collection, that does not solve the problem of someone who has five cases pending or has no assets.”
Like Legh, Walker suggests assessing defendants’ likelihood and ability to pay before suing, including finding out if they own property or have other assets that a successful plaintiff could access.
Small claims courts are administered by provincial and territorial governments, so rules may differ across the country.
“Useless” court orders
Last month, BC made changes to the small claims court process by approving the Monetary Judgment Enforcement Actwhose objective is to make it easier for self-represented plaintiffs to collect judgments.
According to the British Columbia government website, the new law expands what can be seized and eliminates the need for plaintiffs to apply for multiple court orders.
“Many of the powers that the Family Support Enforcement Program has to collect child support/support payments have been granted to civilian law enforcement officials,” a spokesperson for the Columbia Attorney General’s office told Go Public. British.
Dobson says he has all but given up on getting his money from Grosse, but not on getting justice.
“If there could be more force in a court order… that would definitely be helpful,” he said, noting that in many cases court orders are ignored and therefore useless.
Now, he and another former client of Grosse’s are posting warnings about the contractor on Kijiji and the website Trusted Pros, which posts reviews of tradesmen and companies.
They are collecting complaints against Grosse, hoping that the information they have gathered will eventually lead to fraud charges.
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