Contacting the Residential Tenancy Branch - A (Fair) Warning
Many people who rent or own property in British Columbia may have questions or disputes about their rights and obligations. For example, tenants may want to know whether they should pay their rent if a landlord isn't holding up their end of the tenancy agreement, or landlords may want to know if they are able to evict a tenant because their cousin wants to move into a property they own.
While the BC Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) is a government agency that provides dispute resolution services for landlords and tenants, there is a common misconception that the RTB's advice amounts to legal advice, or that it should be followed without checking it with a lawyer.
First and foremost, the RTB does not give legal advice. Period. They provide legal information to individuals that contact them, and the information officers that provide answers to common questions may not be legally trained and are not bound by the advice that they provide. The RTB makes sure to mention that in the pre-recorded message that callers have to listen to when they call the RTB, but that is all-too-often overlooked. Similarly, the RTB advertises the fact that they do not provide legal advice on their website, like the picture to the left.
So, what does this mean and why is it important?
Legal information is general information about the law, such as the Residential Tenancy Act, the regulations, the policies and the forms. Legal information can help you understand your legal rights and responsibilities, but it cannot tell you what to do in your specific situation.
Legal advice, on the other hand, is applying the law to your specific situation and giving you recommendations on what actions to take or what decisions to make. Legal advice can only be given by a lawyer or someone who is authorized to practice law.
The RTB is an administrative body that administers the Residential Tenancy Act and the regulations. The RTB therefore cannot tell you how the law applies to your case or what evidence you need to prove your case, as it applies to your specific situation. The RTB also cannot tell you what exact outcome to expect, or what remedies to seek, except in very general terms.
Therefore, if an RTB information officer were to tell you that you are entitled to withhold payment of rent to your landlord, and you were to follow that advice, you may find yourself in a situation where you may or may not have had the legal right to withhold your rent and your landlord may successfully be able to evict you on that basis. If that ends up happening, pointing to a call you made to the RTB asking for advice may not be a sufficient reason to excuse your non-payment of rent.
Similarly, if an RTB information officer tells you that you are entitled to end a tenancy because your close family member intends to move into your property, but they are unaware that the person you consider to be a close family member is actually your cousin who does not meet the definition of a "close family member" set out in section 49 of RTA, then you may be in the position of illegally evicting your tenant, something that may attract a monetary penalty of the equivalent of 12-months rent as compensation.
If you need legal advice, give us a call and we will ensure that you receive proper legal advice based on your specific facts. Alternatively, you can access free or low-cost legal services through Access Pro Bono or other organizations. Whatever you do, you should not rely on the RTB's information as legal advice, because the difference between legal information and legal advice is crucial for anyone who is involved in a tenancy matter. By understanding this difference, you can make informed choices and protect your rights.