On March 26, 2020, the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General took the exceptional step of suspending limitation periods to commence court proceedings in British Columbia. Ministerial Order no. M086 can be found here.
The Order was made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the declaration of a state of emergency throughout the Province of British Columbia on March 18, 2020. This has affected access to the courts. Supreme Court registries are not currently providing in-person registry services (which includes the filing of pleadings) while the Court’s regular operations are suspended. Electronic filing is still available, as are other means which do not require in-person interaction with the registry (the B.C. Supreme Court announcement can be found here).
The Order provides that every mandatory limitation period and any other mandatory time period that is established in an enactment or law of British Columbia within which a civil or family action, proceeding, claim or appeal must be commenced in the Provincial Court, Supreme Court or Court of Appeal is suspended. The Order applies from the date of the Order (not from the March 18, 2020 declaration of a state of emergency) until the declaration of emergency (or any extension) expires or is cancelled.
This is an extraordinary measure. Limitation periods provide for a deadline for bringing a claim. Failure to commence a claim within the limitation period will usually result in dismissal of the claim as statute-barred. Limitation periods are intended to encourage the timely pursuit of claims, and reduce prejudice to the administration of justice. If a plaintiff is allowed to delay the commencement of a claim, the defendant may be put in the unfair position of having to disprove a claim when key evidence and witnesses have been lost due to the passage of time.
Persons with potential claims should be aware of the Order. They now have more time to bring claims, and should not be concerned if they are unable to file pleadings during the state of emergency due to court closures.
Executors should also consider the effect of the Order on estate administration matters, most notably distribution of estate assets to beneficiaries. The Wills, Estates and Succession Act [SBC 2009] Chapter 13 provides that the personal representative of a deceased person must not distribute the estate of the deceased person within 210 days following the date of the grant of probate or administration, absent a court order or the consent of the beneficiaries. This is so that potential claimants can bring claims before estate assets have been distributed, some of which must brought within 180 days of the issuance of the grant (most notably wills variation claims). Executors should obtain advice before distributing assets even after 210 days, if the 180 day deadlines have been suspended.
These circumstances are quickly changing (and the state of emergency will eventually be cancelled, ending the suspension), and so any affected party, or party seeking to rely upon the suspension to delay filing a claim, should regularly check the websites of the B.C. Courts and the B.C. Attorney General.