Ontario lawyers warn delays at provincial human rights tribunal could undermine cases
There are concerns that delays could shake public confidence in the system
A shortage of adjudicators at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario is causing widespread delays that some lawyers say could undermine cases, prolong conflicts and discourage vulnerable people from seeking relief.
A notice on tribunal's website says the dearth of adjudicators is affecting its ability to meet its service standards, noting complainants may have to wait longer than usual before mediation or a hearing.
Meanwhile, the tribunal reported last fall that it had seen an unprecedented 25 per cent increase in its caseload in the previous year and a half, and currently receives roughly 4,500 applications annually.
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A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General, which oversees the province's 19 tribunals, said recruitment is underway to fill vacancies but did not give a timeline for the appointment process.
Brian Gray said there are currently 17 full-time vice-chairs, one part-time vice-chair and 22 part-time members at the tribunal.
Adjudicators — which include members or the more senior positions of vice-chair — carry out dispute resolution through mediation or hearings. The human rights tribunal is an independent body that deals with applications related to discrimination and harassment under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The tribunal is uniquely equipped to handle these complex and sensitive matters and the only avenue to obtain public interest remedies, human rights lawyers say, adding it must be given the resources to carry out its mandate in a timely fashion.
Multiple delays, cancellations already on books
Janina Fogels, senior legal counsel at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, said the agency started tracking delays and cancellations in its cases before the tribunal last summer after learning of the shortage in adjudicators.
Since last August, 18 of its clients' mediations have been cancelled or rescheduled, and one hearing has been cancelled, she said. There have also been longer waits for interim and final decisions, she said.
"It draws out the conflict, that would be conflict between employees and employers, sometimes people who are still in the same workplace ... which potentially can make conflict fester," Fogels said.
"We're definitely concerned about the impact on the claimants who are hoping for a timely resolution to the discrimination they've experienced ... We're concerned when any dispute resolution system is backlogged but especially one that affects people's dignity, their livelihood, their ability to get on with their lives."
Kelly Doctor, a partner at the law firm Goldblatt Partners, said she recently received an email advising her that the tribunal no longer had the resources to hear a preliminary motion that had been set for this month.
"We had been waiting a while for that hearing date," she said.
"Now this case is on hold indefinitely ... We're not even at the stage of having everyone sit down and go to mediation, let alone the stage of having it proceed to a hearing so it's really sort of making things drag on and it's problematic."
Delays put stress on complainants
Such delays can put a lot of strain on complainants, both emotionally and financially, she said. In some cases, people have lost their jobs due to discrimination and can face real economic pressure until their case is resolved, she said.
These setbacks can also undermine public confidence in the system, she said.
"If they see the human rights tribunal as being an ineffective place to resolve their disputes I think it could result in people not filing claims," Doctor said.
What's more, if respondents know the case likely won't come before the tribunal for years, they can use that to pressure complainants to accept less money or drop their claims, she said.
Adam Savaglio, a Hamilton-based lawyer, said that because the tribunal has specific expertise, more people are turning to it for relief in cases involving sexual assault and other issues where a broader remedy is sought.
But delays caused by understaffing can compromise complainants' ability to preserve and present evidence, he said, noting memories may become less clear and witnesses harder to find.
"It speaks to procedural fairness and the right to a timely hearing, those are two fundamental principles of our system," he said.
The governing Progressive Conservatives have consolidated the province's tribunals, including the human rights tribunal, under one organization, a decision that took effect on Jan. 1.
Vanessa Campbell, a spokeswoman for the human rights tribunal, said all of the tribunals will be reviewed "to identify areas for improvement to make services more streamlined, cost-effective and efficient."