Legal clinics raise concerns about virtual eviction hearings
Sudbury Community Legal Clinic among many in the province speaking out
Landlord and Tenant Board hearings are once again underway after a pause of several months due to the pandemic, but legal clinics in Ontario are raising concerns about how those hearings are happening.
The Landlord and Tenant Board, the provincial tribunal which deals with disputes between landlords and tenants, including eviction applications, has not resumed in person hearings, but began virtual hearings in mid-August.
Monique Woolnough, the executive director of the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, says those virtual hearings do not always allow tenants to receive access to justice.
Woolnough says since mid-October, the Landlord and Tenant Board has "dramatically" increased number of cases being scheduled "with no regard to tenants' right to seek legal advice and assistance."
"The pressure to deal with cases quickly is denying tenants the right to get legal advice."
Scheduling, technology problems
Woolnough says the use of virtual hearings presents a barrier to many of the low-income tenants she represents. She says many do not have reliable phone or internet access.
She recalls a recent case where she was given only 15 minutes to read the case documents, and speak with the client who had borrowed a friend's phone with spotty service.
"It took 10 minutes for me to receive 80 pages of evidence from the landlord. I also called the client 10 times in those 10 minutes, and only got through with five minutes left," Woolnough said.
Woolnough says there are also problems with how the hearings are being scheduled. The Sudbury Community Legal Clinic has five staff members available to offer legal advice, but she says on a recent day, there were 16 different hearings all scheduled at the same time, on different phone lines.
"We are unable to provide legal advice to tenants because we cannot simultaneously be present on all phone lines," Woolnough said, noting it's a problem throughout the province.
"This is denying thousands of tenants the chance to get legal advice on a hearing that could result in losing their home right before the cold winter months, and in the middle of a pandemic."
Suggestions for improvements
With the ongoing pandemic, Woolnough and other advocates would like to see the province re-instate a moratorium on evictions.
However, in the absence of that, Woolnough says there are things the Landlord and Tenant Board could do, to ensure equitable access to justice, such as providing spaces where people could access a phone or computer if they don't have one.
"They've left it to clinics. We're very small, we don't have space to do that for all tenants in Ontario, but it's certainly something the Landlord and Tenant Board could take the lead on," Woolnough said.
Tribunals Ontario did not make anyone available for an interview, and did not provide a statement by CBC's deadline.