Condo owners group swamped with requests for help to resolve disputes

The head of the Condo Owners Council of Alberta says it's time the Alberta government brought in a way for condo owners to resolve their battles with their neighbours, their condo boards or property managers — without having to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees, plus months or even years under stress, fighting for a solution.

"We get outright devastating emails, owners that can't get documents, owners that just got an $80,000 special assessment, owners that are dealing with non-response by the board … we have a multitude of issues, complaints,  stress, problems, and it all comes down to the fact that we have no recourse," said Shelly MacMillan.

MacMillan said she's been pressing the province for a few years now to create a civil resolution tribunal, similar to what is currently in place in British Columbia.

The government absolutely has to step up and finally deliver that tribunal that we've been asking for. - Shelly MacMillan, Condo Owners Council of Alberta

But in recent months she said her group been getting emails every day — mostly asking where owners can go to address their complaints about their manager or board.

She said often, the straight-forward answer is nowhere.

"I believe that this tribunal is urgent. It should have been started in 2014 as was promised by the PC government," said MacMillan.

A condo resolution dispute board was first considered by the provincial government in 2013, and then again in 2017 by the NDP government, and now the UCP government said it's considering it, too.

B.C.'s  Civil Resolution Tribunal was launched in 2016.

It provides a more accessible way to resolve everyday neighbour issues that happen in these small communities, because prior to 2016, the only option was to apply to B.C.'s Supreme Court.

"We resolve most everyday bread and butter condominium disputes. For really significant issues, involving whether or not to wind up a strata corporation, or those kinds of really serious issues, you still have to go to court." said Shannon Salter, chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal.

Salter said almost all condo disputes that fall within the tribunal's jurisdiction must go through the tribunal process — unless someone makes a court application to be exempt from the process.

B.C. tribunal has resolved hundreds of cases

As of Dec. 31, 2019, the CRT has received 2,292 applications to resolve condo disputes. It's resolved 1,965 of them  with the remaining cases still open.

Salter said the first step is to help people talk to or write a letter to their neighbour or condo board to resolve an issue.

If that doesn't work, the complainant can apply for dispute resolution where staff will help them try to negotiate a solution or in most cases, Salter said, a mediator will step in.

But if mediation fails, the tribunal members can then make a decision that's enforceable as a court order based on the law and the evidence.

And if people are unhappy with the result of that decision it can be judicially reviewed in court.

"In the vast majority of cases there are no lawyers and the whole system is designed about a Grade 6 reading level to make it really simple and step by step so people can do it themselves … because you're online you can take every step along the process from your cell phone from your living room."

The initial application fee is $125 which covers the application, the negotiation phase and the mediation phase.

If it goes to adjudication, then one of the parties must pay another $100. Salter said at the end of the process the tribunal may order the losing party to cover the costs.

Costs were skyrocketing

"We saw costs, just costs for the corporations and for the owners, we saw costs for disputes, that were really trivial disputes, but they were issues that people genuinely needed, we saw costs excluding $50,000 on a regular basis," said Tony Gioventu, director of the Condominium Homeowners Association of British Columbia.

Gioventu said it's not a perfect system, and not every decision is great but it is a far better system than what existed.

"If we had a no-smoking bylaw in our building ,and my neighbour was smoking and contaminating my unit, I had to go to the Supreme Court to get an order to order the corporation to enforce those bylaws and that individual had to be ordered to comply with the bylaws," said Gioventu.

MacMillan said she wishes there had been a tribunal in Alberta when she was first trying to access a reserve fund study from her condo board. She ended up embroiled in a lawsuit with the condo corporation for what she believes was in response to speaking out on a public forum about the way her board was running the complex.

The lawsuit against MacMillan was eventually dismissed but not before she spent $65,000 and three years of her life trying to clear her name.

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But she said the kicker is that because the lawsuit cost the board about $100,000, her condo fees now go toward paying off that debt.

And she believes this could have all been avoided had she been able to reach out for help from a dispute resolution board.

"As Alberta condo owners, do we have to go to these expensive court applications to get the condo boards to comply? It is just not realistic. And the government absolutely has to step up and finally deliver that tribunal that we've been asking for," said MacMillan.

MacMillan said she met with the service minister in December to reiterate the importance and urgent need for some type of dispute resolution tribunal for Albertans that is more easily accessible and affordable.

"We are aware of ongoing concerns from condo owners, boards, and corporations about the need for a dispute resolution mechanism and we are planning to meet with Albertans later in the spring to discuss options for dispute resolution, including a tribunal," the department said in an emailed response to CBC News.