British Columbia’s New Arbitration Act
On September 1, 2020, British Columbia’s Arbitration Act, S.B.C. 2020, c. 2 (the “New Act”) came into force. The New Act introduces important amendments that aim to improve the efficiency of the Province’s arbitral process. This will improve commercial dealings by clarifying ambiguities in the previous legislation and creating greater uniformity in arbitrations laws nationally. To that end, the New Act closely resembles The Uniform Law Conference of Canada’s Uniform Act. In turn, the Uniform Act is a national project that strives to harmonize Canada’s arbitration laws with the United Nations’ UNCITRAL Model Law. Generally, these national and international model laws seek to limit judicial intervention in arbitral proceedings, and, thereby, create greater certainty in private dispute resolutions. The New Act strives towards this end as well.
The New Act introduces several important changes worth highlighting. First, Sections 21 and 22 impose a duty on the arbitrator and parties, respectively, to seek a “just, speedy, and economical determination of the proceeding based on its merits.” This explicit focus on the timely and economic resolution of disputes is the principle that underpins all of the New Act’s reforms. Appeals, for instance, are sent directly to British Columbia’s Court of Appeal on questions of law (s.59). Likewise, the time period for appealing an arbitral award or setting it aside due to an apprehension of bias has been shortened from 60 to 30 days (s.60).
In further regards to time limits, section 11 of the New Act reads: “the law with respect to limitation periods for commencing court proceedings applies to commencing arbitral proceedings.” This provision was absent from the previous legislation, creating an ambiguity because British Columbia’s Limitation Act, SBC 2012, c 13, does not specify that it applies to arbitrations and it contains court-centric language. Consequently, it is now clear that parties to an arbitration agreement will have two years from the date that they knew or ought to of known they have a potential claim against another party to pursue arbitration or their claim will be statute barred.
Arbitrators now have expanded authority. Section 23 of the New Act empowers arbitrators to rule on their own jurisdiction. Where this power is exercised as a preliminary matter, either party may refer the issue to the Supreme Court of British Columbia within 30 days of receiving notice of the arbitrator’s ruling for a re-determination. In exercising their jurisdiction, arbitrators are now permitted under section 25 of the New Act to apply equitable principles, whereas the previous legislation limited their authority to the application of statutory law.
Turning to procedures, the New Act no longer specifies default rules. The British Columbia International Commercial Arbitration Centre’s rules (“BCICA”) previously applied by default, unless the parties agreed otherwise. While the New Act removes any reference to the BCICA’s rules, it has incorporated some of their key elements. For example, section 29 allows arbitrators to subpoena non-party witnesses. Where parties have not specified and cannot agree on the applicable rules, arbitrators appear to have discretion under section 32 to make procedural orders that could include the selection of arbitral rules.
Where the parties cannot agree on an arbitrator, the selection is made by the legislation’s designated appointing authority. Under section 2 of the New Act’s attendant Arbitration Regulation, BC Reg. 160/2020, this appointing authority is the Vancouver International Arbitration Centre (“VIAC”). Previously, such appointment disputes were resolved by application to the British Columbia Supreme Court. By creating the VIAC, the New Act increases efficiency by reducing arbitrations’ reliance on the courts. In addition, the VICA can set arbitrators fees and impose terms on awards whenever an arbitrator’s fees remain unpaid.
Finally, the New Act introduces three other significant changes that were previously absent from the legislation. First, a witness’s evidence is to be written, unless otherwise agreed to by the parties. Oral evidence is limited to cross-examinations. Second, section 68 requires confidentiality. The parties may not disclose information about the proceeding or its outcome. Third, arbitrators may grant interim orders, even on an ex parte basis. However, these orders do not constitute an arbitral award, nor are they enforceable in the courts.
The New Act applies to all arbitral proceedings commenced on or after September 1, 2020. However, it does not apply to proceedings that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Commercial Arbitration Act, RSBC 1996, c 233, nor does it apply to family law matters.
 The BCICA was re-branded as the VIAC.