A class action is a unique kind of lawsuit where a group of people who have the same problem get together and sue at the same time. The group of people is called the “class”, and the size of the class can vary – a class must include at least two people, but there is no limit to how many people can be in a class.
A class action is a representative action. This means that the class is represented by an individual (or sometimes, several individuals) who is called the “representative plaintiff”. The representative plaintiff’s role is to:
- Advise class counsel (the lawyers for the class);
- Fairly and adequately represent the interests of the class; and
- Have an understanding of the substance of the lawsuit.
A lawsuit can only become a class action if it is approved by the court. This process is called “certification”. It occurs via a motion before a judge. A motion is an application to the court by the parties, or their lawyers, to obtain a ruling or order. In this instance the order being requested is certification of the lawsuit as a class proceeding.
Only once a court finds that all of the elements of certification are present can a lawsuit be called a class action or class proceeding. Every province in Canada except Prince Edward Island has their own class action legislation. For example, in Ontario the legislation is called the Class Proceedings Act, 1992. The procedure for class actions is similar from one province to the next.
Other information about class actions to keep in mind:
- As a class member, you do not actively participate in the class action—but you still have rights.
- A class action is a long process. From beginning to end the lawsuit will likely take two or more years.
- Not all lawsuits get certified as class actions. Roughly ¼ lawsuits fail at the certification stage, and the litigation effectively ends.
- A class action that is certified is more likely to settle than to result in a trial. If the class action settles, specifics of the claim will not be argued in open court.
- As a class member, you are not automatically guaranteed money upon settlement or favourable ruling from the court. Additional steps may be required such as proof of purchase or proof of damages.