Toronto

Renters' advocacy group concerned about Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board's online transition

A renters' advocacy group is raising concerns about a move by the provincial board that adjudicates disputes between landlords and tenants to transition much of its activity online, saying the digital shift will disadvantage people who don't have easy access to technology.

Website meant to modernize dispute resolution process could act as 'digital wall,' tenants' supporter warns

Renters' advocates say they are concerned that the Landlord and Tenant Board's introduction of a new online portal could be a barrier to access for people without easy access to technology. (Radio-Canada)

A renters' advocacy group is raising concerns about a move by the Ontario board responsible for adjudicating disputes between landlords and tenants to transition much of its activity online, saying the digital shift will disadvantage those without easy access to technology.

Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board started using an online platform on Dec. 8 to file documents, process applications and schedule hearings. The board says the new Tribunals Ontario Portal will "streamline" the dispute resolution process.

But while using the online platform isn't mandatory, Douglas Kwan, director of advocacy and legal services at Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, says making it the preferred method for renters and landlords to manage their cases will create another barrier to accessing services, particularly for marginalized people.

"Our concern with that is that many people lack the data, the minutes on their phone, the technological wherewithal," said Kwan.

"They also have numeracy and literacy issues as well as language issues."

Hastening a digital shift

The concerns come as the board hastens a digital shift that began when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a widespread closure of physical LTB locations.

The LTB used to have 44 physical locations where tenants and landlords could go in-person to receive assistance, access mediators and attend hearings, Kwan said, but many have since been shuttered and hearings have shifted online. 

Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board started using an online platform on Dec. 8 to file documents, process applications and schedule hearings. (Tribunals Ontario)

The new portal is meant to provide landlords the option to file online applications to evict a tenant or collect rent, and allow tenants to request a decision on their rights or make maintenance requests. It will also allow parties to communicate directly to resolve their disputes or request help from a mediator online.

But Kwan says the effect is to create what he calls "a digital wall.'"

Kwan cited a report from Ryerson University's Brookfield Institute released in January, which found that almost half of Toronto households making less than $30,000 didn't have access at home to high speed internet in 2018.

He also said online system could be confusing to some users, and that many low income tenants prefer to use fax machines at their local libraries to send documents, a practice which the LTB is discontinuing by the end of the year.

On top of that, Kwan worries people accessing the online system won't be aware of all the services that are available to them.

"In the in-person format, people would just go into the hearing room and they would see the adjudicator there. They would know that the mediators are available if parties had disagreements or could come to a resolution on their issue," said Kwan. "It's just simply not available, or at least readily apparent, for those who are accessing the digital format."

Douglas Kwan is the director of advocacy and legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. (Submitted: Douglas Kwan)

Applications still accepted by mail, but not fax

Tribunals Ontario, an umbrella organization for 14 adjudicative tribunals under the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, said in a statement that the LTB will continue to accept applications by mail and at 60 Service Ontario locations from people who aren't comfortable using the new technology, or who don't have access to internet.

Those who don't have access to a computer or phone can use terminals to attend virtual hearings at one of four centres in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton, Tribunals Ontario said.

"The Tribunals Ontario Portal will help reduce delays and enhance user experience by giving users the ability to seamlessly file and manage their cases online," the statement said.

"It will also encourage resolution of disputes before the hearing, with new features that give parties the ability to connect directly and come to a resolution."

But Kwan worries allowing mail but not fax will only add to the delays in processing applications, because it will remove the option for those without internet access to send forms instantaneously. 

NDP housing critic Jessica Bell says moving parts of the dispute resolution process online is a good move, as long as people with language or technical barriers have other options available to them. (CBC)

Meanwhile, Jessica Bell, MPP for University-Rosedale and the NDP's housing critic, said moving the system online is a great idea in theory, but only if people with language and technical barriers have other options available to participate in the process.

"Tenants have been evicted because their phone line wasn't working or they didn't have enough minutes to wait for three hours before the hearing was about to begin. Or they don't have access to a permanent computer or they don't have access to a reliable and fast internet connection," said Bell.

"It is absolutely critical that the Landlord Tenant Board listen to tenant advocates, listen to legal professionals, listen to the public and and get this tribunal working as it should."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said in-person hearings are available at four locations in Ontario. In fact, people who don't have access to a computer or phone can use terminals at one of four centres in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton.
    Dec 15, 2021 3:30 PM ET

With files from Kirthana Sasitharan

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