Delayed trials create ‘distress’ for Ontar residents who wait months or years to be heard
Long backlogs at four courts mean Ontario residents are waiting months or even years for their cases to be heard, and critics, attorneys and advocates are urging the government to fix what they call a broken system.
Thousands of cases are being held up at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), the Social Benefits Tribunal (SBT) and the Automobile Accident Benefits Service (AABS), a division of the License Appeal Tribunal, according to opposition figures MPPs and Tribunal Watch Ontario, a non-partisan public interest organization. Lawyers say the system is not working in some human rights cases.
Politicians, lawyers and the public interest group say the backlog is preventing timely resolutions to litigation and hampering access to justice.
LTB settles disputes between landlords and tenants. The HRTO resolves complaints of discrimination and harassment under the Human Rights Code. The SBT receives complaints from people who have been denied social assistance or who disagree with decisions affecting their entitlement, the level of social assistance or benefits. The AABS deals with claims from car accident victims and their insurance companies.
“We see a lot of people fighting while waiting for their hearing date, and of course while they wait it means everything is in limbo,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, MPP of the New Democratic Party.
“It’s no use to anyone if the tribunal system doesn’t work.”
Wong-Tam said she and her colleagues at Queen’s Park heard complaints from constituents about the delays and are urging Premier Doug Ford’s government to address the backlog before an upcoming Ontario Ombudsman report on the LTB is released.
According to its latest annual report, the Ombudsman received 1,110 complaints through Tribunals Ontario between 2021 and 2022, up from 935 the previous year. The majority, 964 complaints, concerned the LTB.
Current backlog numbers not available
Tribunas Ontario, the umbrella organization of 13 adjudicatory courts that administer the judiciary, declined to provide current backlog numbers because those numbers are not yet available. It said the number of cases before the Human Rights Court that were 18 months or older was about 5,200 as of December 31, 2022. In addition, the SBT has reduced its “active case number” from 11,000 to less than 6,700 since May 2021.
While it did not provide figures for the LTB or AABS, the Ontario Tribunal said its annual report showed that the LTB had 32,800 “active cases at the year-end,” while the AABS had 16,204 “active appeals at the fiscal year-end.”
The organization said it is working to clear the backlog.
“Tribunals Ontario has taken steps to address delays resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and we are making significant progress,” spokeswoman Janet Deline said in an email to CBC Toronto.
“The arbitral tribunals and chambers facing delays in service have implemented a number of strategies to improve services, including increasing the number of arbitrators to achieve full complementation and improving the efficiency of caseload management .”
Last April, the province pledged $4.5 million over three years to help clear LTB’s backlog. Then, in November, it said it would spend an additional $1.4 million to resolve those cases faster. In 2020, the tribunal system adopted a digital-first strategy, meaning hearings are conducted virtually except when people ask for housing.
Deline said the measures would clear the backlog. However, Wong-Tam said more funding is needed and the digital-first strategy has disadvantaged low-income Ontarians.
“Every single applicant who is in line now waits more than just a month or two months in line. They’ve been waiting in line for months now, and in some cases years,” Wong-Tam said.
“People can’t afford to wait that long”
Shawn Hsiao, a Toronto tenant, said he had to wait over a year for an LTB hearing.
Hsiao moved into a dormitory in October 2017. Four months later, his landlord, contrary to their lease, demanded that the tenants pay for the hydroelectric power. The tenants refused to pay. Then the landlord started harassing him, Hsiao claimed. He submitted an application to the LTB in October 2019.
The landlady filed her own application to have Hsiao exempted from the Residential Rent Law. The LTB heard the case in May 2021.
Hsiao won, with the judge ruling that the law applies. The landlord appealed but lost the following May.
Despite that ruling, Hsiao said the LTB arrears, as well as his landlord’s alleged actions, left him defenseless.
“I don’t think anyone can live in a harassment situation for that long,” he said. “People can’t afford to wait that long.”
“We definitely see distress,” says the lawyer
Amy Brubacher, an attorney with Don Valley Community Legal Services, said the problems at the Human Rights Tribunal are particularly acute, with cases that deserved to be dismissed before they were heard.
She said she filed a number of cases four years ago that are still awaiting a hearing.
“We deal with issues of discrimination, harassment, racism, discrimination based on disability, sexual harassment. When these cases go on and wait for years, there is no finality, there is no justice,” she said.
“We definitely see distress as a result of that.”
The arrears started growing in 2018 after the Ford government came to power, according to Tribunal Watch Ontario.
Kathy Laird, a member of Tribunal Watch Ontario and a former attorney for the chair of the Human Rights Court, said the government declined to reappoint or retain many existing judges when their terms were extended and then made no new appointments.
CBC Toronto asked the Ontario Attorney General’s office for comment on the appointment of judges, but received no response.
When the government made new appointments, those who filled the roles were not qualified in the area of law in which they had to decide, Laird said.
“When there is a change of government, from Liberal to Conservative, from Conservative to Liberal, from NDP to Liberal, we don’t get rid of all our judges. We’re not firing the Chief Justice. Of course we’re keeping them in place,” Laird said.
“We need to have these experienced judges to stay in place and bring their expertise to future cases.”
The group’s recommendations for addressing the issues include:
Form a squad of specialized judges to clear the backlog.
Make sure everyone appointed to a tribunal is qualified.
resumption of personal hearings.
Create a judicial Judicial Council to oversee the system and appointments to depoliticize the process.
Restore “Stakeholder Advisory Committees” that were dissolved in 2018 and allow them to provide “meaningful input” into the system.
Check the HRTO to see if it is meeting its legal obligations.