'It's not justice, it's efficiency': Critics slam online landlord-tenant hearings

Critics say the Ontario government's move to use video conferences for all future Landlord and Tenant Board hearings does an injustice to tenants who struggle to follow the complex proceedings, often without legal representation.

Woman faces eviction at King Edward Avenue apartments after confusing online hearing

Dezerae Sturgeon was evicted from her apartment at 92 King Edward Ave. in London, Ont., after what she says was a confusing hearing conducted via video chat. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Dezerae Sturgeon had hoped her hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) would be a fair legal process, one that would stop her  — along with her mother and nine-year-old daughter — from being evicted from their home of eight years. 

Instead, she found herself in a confusing online tribunal. The proceedings, conducted via video chat, left her feeling tricked into agreeing to leave her apartment at 92 King Edward Ave. in London, Ont. 

"I did not understand it, I didn't have a mediator in the room," said Sturgeon. "It was not right. It was shady, that's for sure." 

Sturgeon has lived in her apartment for almost nine years. For most of that time, she's had a good relationship with property managers. The rent is $952 for a two-bedroom apartment in the south London complex, which includes seven three-storey walkups and one six-storey apartment building. 

As CBC News reported last week, the building was sold in February 2021. Shortly after the sale, many tenants began to receive N5 notices which state a landlord's intention to proceed with an eviction. 

The complex's owner and property management company have not responded to CBC's request for an interview. 

Sturgeon said she tried to resolve the issue out of court but was scheduled for an online LTB hearing on Dec. 9, 2021.

LTB hearings now all online

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the province moved LTB hearings online via video conferencing. In November 2020, they announced a plan to make online hearings permanent, touting it as a way toward "efficient and accessible dispute resolution." 

But Sturgeon said the process was confusing and unfair.

She waited more than four hours on the phone for the tribunal to begin. Then, she was given a brief consultation with a legal aid representative and moved into an online meeting which she thought would include an adjudicator. But Sturgeon says the meeting quickly shifted to another video meeting. 

"We went into the room and little did I know it was just me and the landlord, no mediator, nobody else, you know, helping or listening," she said. "There was no solution. His solution was to get everybody out of this building."

When the video conference moved back to the room with the adjudicator, Sturgeon says she was told she had verbally agreed to move out and the hearing was over. Days later, she received documents in the mail stating she would need to leave her apartment by the end of April, something she says she did not agree to.

"I felt tricked," said Sturgeon. "I felt manipulated." 

AG says online tribunals will ease backlog 

In a statement to CBC News, Ontario's Attorney General's Ministry acknowledged there are issues with the system, but said they're working to fix them and that overall, the online hearings will lead to quicker resolutions. 

The statement said the LTB has 39 full-time and 49 part-time adjudicators, the "highest number of adjudicators ever appointed to the LTB."

It also says the online process will help address the backlog by getting more disputes resolved outside of the hearing process. 

"The LTB has made changes that are intended to reduce the number of applications that need a hearing, use hearing time more efficiently, and increase the capacity of the LTB to hold hearings and resolve disputes before a full hearing," the statement says.

"The new system is an end-to-end digital solution and includes case management, document management, features to assist with mediation, online dispute resolution and a public-facing self-help tool."

Lawyer says system is broken

Despite this, Sturgeon's story came as no surprise to Ian Dantzer, a lawyer who works with Community Legal Services at Western University Law, where he's represented clients at many video tribunals.

"It is the most unfair, inequitable system I have ever seen," he said. "It's not justice, it's efficiency."

The exterior of 92 King Edward Ave., which was sold in February 2021. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

He said often tenants get "railroaded" because there isn't a legal aid lawyer available, leaving them with no legal representation, something he said most landlords have.

Also, Dantzer said people often wait hours for the online hearing, only to arrive at the end of the day with a notice to reschedule.

Pressure to settle

He said tenants often face pressure to reach solution in a system that is badly backlogged. 

The tenants group ACORN has long been a critic of the online tribunals. Jordan Smith of ACORN said they've become a tool that speeds up what his group calls "digital evictions." 

"Up to 25 per cent of the people we speak to don't have internet access," said Smith. 

CBC News reached out to Ontario's Attorney General ministry, which oversees tribunals, but did not receive a response. 

Meanwhile Sturgeon, with an approved eviction looming, has to try to find a new apartment in a market where ones like hers fetch close to $2,000 a month. 

"I have no place to go and I have a mother and child that I have to take care of."