In July 2021, Jonathan Laferrière, a resident of Quebec, was working at home when he received a call from a bailiff.
She wanted to know how Laferrière would pay the $4,015.17 he owed after a judgment against him in Small Claims Court.
Laferriere was confused.
“My first reaction was that it was a scam,” he told CBC in an interview last week.
“I had never been sued and I had never been to court, but while I was talking to her the details she gave me made it quite alarming,” he said.
It was not a scam.
Laferrière learned that the lawsuit was related to a Montreal condominium he had sold in 2018. A year later, the new owner discovered a mouse problem and sued Laferrière in Small Claims Court, alleging that the presence of vermin was a hidden defect, known in French. like a hidden defect.
But Laferrière was never informed that he was being prosecuted.
“The buyer failed to reach me and the courthouse sent the notice of lawsuit to an address where I never lived,” Laferriere said.
The trial took place without Laferrière ever being informed. The judge ruled in favor of the buyer in October 2020. In March 2021, the court authorized a bailiff to collect the money.
The bailiff finally found Laferrière last July.
Laferriere was now on the hook for $4,000, never having had a chance to defend himself.
It was just the beginning of what Laferriere calls a “Kafkaesque horror story,” in which he did everything right, but still ended up owing money because of mistakes made by the court.
“I thought the courts were something you could rely on, but I kind of completely lost faith in the system,” Laferriere said.
“I feel like I’m so small. I feel very unimportant, like I’m at the mercy of this giant bureaucratic machine that kind of works on its own,” he said.
No more setbacks
The Small Claims Court exists to settle minor monetary disputes, the presumed value of which is $15,000 or less in Quebec, without involving lawyers. It is efficient and simple. But if something is wrong, people are left on their own to figure it out.
At first, Laferrière felt up to the task.
After hearing the bailiff, he went to the Quebec courthouse and explained that he had never been contacted about the lawsuit. He was told he could pay $300 to have the decision overturned.
This is when a decision is suspended and there is essentially a recovery. Laferriere thought that if he could spend his day in court, he might be able to get the amount he owed reduced or maybe even erased.
He paid the $300 and got the retraction. A new trial has been ordered.
But there were more bumps in the road.
Laferrière received a letter from the court asking him to prepare any documents he might want to use as evidence and send them to the Montreal courthouse where the trial would be held. But before he could do that, he needed to see the evidence the buyer had presented against him.
“Because at this point, keep in mind that I still don’t know exactly why I’m being sued. I don’t have any specifics,” Laferriere said. The letter said he would be contacted soon. Weeks passed and nothing came.
He called the courthouse again and was told he had to send an email formally requesting proof from the buyer. There was also a $200 fee.
“I feel like that’s the kind of information it would have been great to have in the letter, but I digress,” he said.
He paid the fees, received the documents from the buyer, built his case and submitted his evidence to the court.
Then another hitch.
Apparently, there had been a 15-day deadline for him to submit his evidence, and that deadline had long since passed. There was no mention of the deadline in any of the correspondence he received from the court.
He phoned the courthouse again, and they explained that he had received the wrong forms. He was told to take all of his evidence, put it in an envelope with a handwritten note explaining the situation to the judge, and send it to the Montreal courthouse.
He did, and it worked. A new trial date has been set for last December.
Both Laferrière and the buyer presented their arguments to the judge. In the end, he was still ordered to pay the buyer, but it was much less than the initial amount. Instead of $4,000, he was ordered to pay $1,500: a partial victory.
“I was ready to put all of this behind me. I mailed the check to the woman who sued me. I gave her the money. It’s delivered. It’s cashed. And I think that this is the end,” Laferrière mentioned.
“Finally, thank God, I can go on with my life,” he said.
Interest charged on original decision
Earlier this year, Laferriere received a letter from his employer telling him that they had been contacted by a bailiff and that they would be deducting money from his paycheck to pay off the $4,000 he owed. (Court-appointed bailiffs have the power to garnish people’s wages, collect debts.)
Laferrière called the bailiff again, and the bailiff realized that a mistake had been made and said his employer would be contacted and the situation rectified.
Then the bailiff called Laferriere back earlier this month and told him he still owed $1,020. Laferrière was confused, as the matter was settled and he had already reimbursed the buyer who had sued him.
The bailiff told him that the $1,020 included interest and administrative fees charged on the original judgment amount of $4,015.17 — the original amount held against him, which Laferriere had already paid to recant.
Laferrière asks the bailiff why he should pay interest on a decision that is no longer valid.
“They said, ‘That’s how the system works,'” Laferriere said.
He called the courthouse to confirm if it was true and was told the same.
“They just shrugged and said, ‘What are you going to do? “”, Did he declare.
Laferriere said he was told he could pay $300 again and try to recant or challenge the fine in court.
“I’m not going to take on the justice system. If you see the price of gas, I can’t afford a lawyer right now,” he said.
ray of hope
Laferrière may still have a card to play.
Annie-Claude Bergeron, spokesperson for the Court of Quebec, which has jurisdiction over the province’s small claims courts, told CBC that the court could not comment on any particular case.
But Bergeron referred Radio-Canada to article 566 of the Civil Code of Quebec.
“This article gives the debtor who wishes to contest the amount claimed the possibility of filing an incidental request on a form which can be obtained from the clerk”, specified Mr. Bergeron.
Laferriere said neither the bailiff nor the courthouse ever mentioned that option, but he might consider it.
“Part of me wants to do it so badly because I just feel like I shouldn’t let it die,” he said,
“But at the same time, it’s so complicated.”
“I don’t really want to go through all that again.”