'It's easy to game': Paralegal calls for small claims court reforms

A retired paralegal who spent two decades working small claims cases says the province needs to address fundamental flaws in the system — to help people decide whether it's worth the expense of filing a lawsuit.

AG's office says filing small courts claims now easier but doesn't address difficulties collecting winnings

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi to hold a press conference Wednesday about changes coming to the civil litigation system including small claims court.

A retired paralegal who spent two decades working small claims cases says the province needs to address fundamental flaws in the system — to help people decide whether it's worth the expense of filing a lawsuit.

It can cost thousands of dollars to find out what assets someone has if they don't voluntarily report, Dougall Grange said.

"It's easy to game," he said. "It's not uncommon to do business with people who are judgment proof, who are less than honest, forthright, diligent."

He would like the province to make public databases that include land titles, business information, and information about any litigation that has been filed against a person. That way people can decide if the person they're trying to sue has any assets to collect, he said.

Retired paralegal Dougall Grange said he'd like the Ontario government to tag owners' business licenses who don't pay their small claims court judgements. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

"If this sort of stuff were available to everybody and we're told, 'Here's some basic searches you can do before you go doing business with somebody,' we're going to put a lot of crooks out of business."

The Ministry of the Ontario Attorney General did not respond to questions about why there is no government help for people who are trying to enforce their successful judgements at small claims court. 

Instead, a spokeswoman replied that the ministry is trying to improve access to the system at the beginning of the process. 

"Last year, in partnership with ServiceOntario, we made it possible for people to submit all small claims online," wrote Clare Graham, the press secretary for Ontario's Attorney General Yasir Naqvi in an email to CBC Toronto. "Ontarians can now file their claims in small claims court when it's convenient for them — 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Golrokh Amirpour won a $25,000 judgement at small claims court two years ago but said she has no hope of collecting. (Martin Trainor )

But making it easier to file a claim doesn't help Golrockh Amirpour Dolatshahi collect the money she's owed.

If she knew how difficult it would be to collect her small claims court judgment, she might not have put herself through it. 

"The judgment has no value. I just spent money to stress. I can't do that again. I can't go through that," she said.

Difficulty collecting

It took more than a year for Amirpour, a medical secretary, to successfully sue Angelina Codina for $25,000 in 2015. 

Codina had billed herself as an immigration consultant and charged the Toronto woman $24,000 to help her younger brother Hossein and his friend immigrate to Canada from Iran.

Hossein Amirpour's sister paid alleged immigration fraudster Angelina Codina thousands of dollars to help her brother immigrate to Canada. (Golrokh Amirpour)

Amirpour's victory in court, however, was short-lived. 

Even after Amirpour put a lien on Codina's downtown Toronto condo, when it was sold by a mortgage company for more than $500,000 last fall, she didn't see any of it.

According to Ontario's guide for collecting money in a small claims judgment, a person who wins their case can't seize jewelry, equipment or tools owned by the person who lost. A successful plaintiff can, however, garnish a person's wages, seize property, or a vehicle registered to the debtor.

But Amirpour said Codina made it impossible to collect. Codina has been in custody since May 2014 and has no savings in the bank, Amirpour said.

Angelina Codina had no money in the bank, no wages to garnish when Amirpour tried to collect her small claims judgement. (CBC)

About the time Amirpour put a lien on Codina's Toronto condo she also learned the alleged immigration fraudster had sold a retail property in Hamilton and transferred another to a family member.

Amirpour thought the one lien in Toronto would cover all Codina's potential properties. She was wrong: she would have had to spend the money to file a lien in every town she suspected Codina might have property if she hoped to collect her judgment.

"I can't garnish her bank account. She doesn't have a job [so] I can't garnish her pay," the medical secretary said. "I think about it day and night, but mostly I see the government as responsible because she can do that, because she has been allowed to do that."

Ministry review

The Ministry of the Attorney General has been reviewing Ontario's civil enforcement system for a year. It's completed its consultation with the public and stakeholders, Graham said.

"The Attorney General is closely reviewing the submissions and advice from stakeholders and intends to propose reforms that will reduce enforcement delays in the coming months," she wrote. 

But there was no mention of government help to collect awards that are in arrears.

Grange said he had advised many clients not to bother taking a matter to small claims court because of the time, expense and the risk that you'll never collect your judgment even if you're successful.

He started a website called as a last resort for those trying to collect their small claims court judgments.

Sometimes, court is not the answer: paralegal

For a fee, you can post your case number, date of judgment, name of the debtor, and amount of the judgment against that person.

"I know I've hurt the businesses of some of the people whose name is up there."

But there could be ways to prevent these matters from having to go before a court in the first place, he said.

"If a business operator is misbehaving and taking money in a manner that they shouldn't, I think the judge should be able to remove their right to operate a business or the fact that they have judgments against them should be tagged onto their business licence," Grange suggested.

"I would like them to put me out of business so people would know who has judgments against them."