British Columbia

Property owners who fail to shovel sidewalk snow get cold shoulder in Vancouver's bylaw court

Bylaw court is where Vancouver homeowners end up if get caught failing to shovel snow off sidewalks in front of their property before 10 a.m. every day after a fresh snowfall. It's tedious and the fine is difficult to fight.

The city need only prove there was snow on sidewalk past 10 a.m.

A man carrying an umbrella walks along a slick sidewalk as snow falls in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Outside one of the busiest small claims courtrooms in Vancouver, two dozen people trickled into the waiting room Tuesday clutching matching white sheets of paper, all of them summoned because they didn't clear snow from their sidewalks months ago during one of the coldest, snowiest Februarys the city has seen in recent history.

They double checked their names on a list on a TV screen glowing blue, and found a place to watch the clock until hearings began at 9:30 a.m.

Some slouched on yellowed chairs and others leaned against scuffed walls, waiting for the light beside the door of Room 204 to turn from red to green. Couples muttered over their court papers — court summons calling them to appear at this date and time — and strangers compared notices before the papers disappeared back into pockets and folded hands.

Bylaw court is where Vancouver homeowners end up if they're caught failing to shovel snow off sidewalks in front of their property before 10 a.m. the day after a fresh snowfall. Hearings unfold on various Tuesday mornings at Robson Square Provincial Court between October and December. 

All 244 property owners charged after the snowy winter of 2019 will be called here. They will be given a choice to either pay a fine, set a date for trial, or ask to see their case file and come back another day.

Everyone in court Tuesday failed to shovel on Feb. 15 or 16 of this year, when most of Metro Vancouver saw three times the historical amount of snow for the month.

Most agreed to the fine and left in three minutes or less.

A man clears ice off the sidewalk in front of his house in Vancouver on Jan. 3, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Father and son Sam and Justin Rai — the former who owns an empty lot in Vancouver — both received a pair of bylaw infractions this year. They carpooled to court Tuesday.

Justin Rai stopped short of using a colourful word unfit for a courtroom after he confirmed their names on the TV list.

"They came for us, man," he said to his dad.

The city prosecutor, Don Howieson, was swarmed when he walked in, pulling a stack of files behind him on a trolley not unlike a bar cart.

Howieson, a silver-haired man dressed in a grey suit, tie and glasses, raised his voice to explain the choices to the entire waiting room.

He said anyone who did not take issue with the charge should pay the fine and move on. Those who felt they had a strong defence could ask to return for trial.

"I can tell you, these guys are pretty diligent and they keep good records," Howieson said, referring to city bylaw staff. The officers take photo evidence of the snowy sidewalks, which are included in city's prosecution file in court.

In snow-shovelling disputes between the city and a homeowner, the city need only prove there was snow on the sidewalk in question past 10 a.m. Given the ample photo evidence gathered by city staff, it's often difficult for a homeowner to argue.

Bylaw officers took a photo of the sidewalk in front of Sam Rai's property on Feb. 15, 2019. Rai was fined $800 for failing to clear the slush before 10 a.m. PT. (Rhianna Schmunk/CBC)

Penalties range from a minimum of $250 for an owner-occupied house to $400 for tenant-occupied properties and up to $800 for development lots. 

On Tuesday, it was standing room only inside Room 204 by the time everyone squeezed inside. Half a dozen people hovered in the aisles and one man was stuck holding the door open.

Justice Lori Plater apologized for the squish.

The Rais went last. Bylaw officers found snow along the sidewalk in front of Sam Rai's vacant lot on Boundary Road. He told Plater he shovelled at 7 a.m., but snow must have fallen again before enforcement officers arrived.

Plater didn't buy it. Rai chose an $800 fine because he said he doesn't have the time for a trial.

"I can't sit there with a shovel all day," said Rai, 57. "I call it a cash grab. A lot of people only plead guilty because they don't have time to come [back]."

Sam Rai, 57, was fined $800 on Nov. 19, 2019 for failing to clear snow from the sidewalk outside his vacant lot on Boundary Road in Vancouver the previous February. (Rhianna Schmunk/CBC)

The property owner, and others, said they didn't get a warning or explanation before they received a summons. A City of Vancouver statement said it does not have a warning policy for snow shovelling, but does make an effort to educate people about the rules.

Plater listened to the owners' frustrations and politely ended the exchanges by thanking everyone for appearing.

Proceedings needed to move along. There was still half a courtroom to get through.

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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