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Landlord and Tenant Board's 'digital first' system harms vulnerable renters, advocacy group says

An Ontario tenant advocacy group says it has filed a human rights complaint arguing the provincial Landlord and Tenant Board's switch to a "digital first" strategy centred on virtual hearings during the pandemic discriminates against vulnerable renters.

Tribunals Ontario embraced range of virtual tools in 2020 due to COVID-19

The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario says it is representing a number of tenants filing applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against the Landlord and Tenant Board, claiming the tribunal’s 'digital first' approach during the pandemic discriminated against vulnerable renters. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press )

An Ontario tenant advocacy group says it has filed a human rights complaint arguing the provincial Landlord and Tenant Board's switch to a "digital first" strategy centred on virtual hearings during the pandemic discriminates against vulnerable renters.

The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario said the complaint was filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal on behalf of a 77-year-old woman in North Bay, Ont., who alleges the board dismissed her application after she experienced issues with the new, digital system.

Lorraine Peever lives alone in subsidized housing, does not have a computer or cellphone, and has primarily attempted to participate in her hearings with the board through a landline, the organization said. The group added the board did not respond to Peever's request for an in-person hearing.

The advocacy group said it is also planning to file several more applications on behalf of other tenants whose rights it alleges were violated because of the change.

Tribunals Ontario, which includes the Landlord and Tenant Board, embraced a range of digital tools such as virtual hearings and online document filing in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tribunals then moved to a new digital case-management system late last year in an effort to combat delays and case backlogs exacerbated by the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Tribunals Ontario confirmed the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario received an application from the advocacy group, but declined to comment further, citing the adjudicative process.

Renters' advocates have expressed concerns since the Landlord and Tenant Board's introduction of its online portal, saying it could be a barrier to access for people without easy access to technology. (Radio-Canada)

In her application to the tribunal, Peever said her building has ongoing issues with bedbugs and she started seeking compensation in 2019 for the loss of her belongings due to infestations. 

Peever spent "considerable time and energy" over the years trying to get her case heard by the board after it was dismissed several times, in part due to issues accessing the online system, the document alleges.

"It simply should not be this much of a trial for an elderly person to access justice," the application reads.

Hearings took place in person before pandemic 

Before the pandemic, the board's hearings typically took place in person, or sometimes by phone for lower-priority applicants in cases not involving evictions and in remote parts of northern Ontario, said Ryan Hardy, ACTO's staff lawyer.

The board also had regional offices across the province where applicants could go to ask questions and talk to lawyers, Hardy said.

The "digital first" approach assumes applicants have a computer with a webcam, and if they don't, they're expected to phone in, he said. "Then they're only partially participating because they can't see anything that the other participants can see on video," he said.

"Then it also assumes that you can do these things, you have the technological know-how to do it, that you're not impeded by disabilities in any way," Hardy said.

There are other issues with the current system, including that it is harder for an applicant to give their version of events in cross-examination and to submit and view supporting documents, he argued.

The organization is seeking a number of systemic reforms to improve accessibility, including making in-person hearings an option equal to remote hearings and reopening physical locations to allow for in-person filing of documents.

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