Legal clinics that support renters have banded together to file human rights complaints against Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board alleging its “digital first” strategy has discriminated against tenants based on age, family status and disability.
For the first time in its history, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario is bringing applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against the LTB and its parent organization, Tribunals Ontario, that call into question the entire method of holding hearings, alleging that “digital first” has created systemic discrimination that puts Ontarians’ human rights last.
“When you do a single system with a service delivery mode that’s digital, there’s a generation of people that didn’t grow up with computers,” said Mairghread Knought, a community legal worker with the Nipissing Community Legal Clinic who has attempted to help people from all over the province who have struggled to have their cases heard in the often chaotic online hearings. “Putting a justice system online where housing is at stake – this isn’t renewing your licence – there’s a customer service aspect really missing here.”
At issue is a decision made in 2020 by Tribunals Ontario and the LTB to no longer hold hearings in person and focus on doing its work online or over the telephone. Officially, in-person hearings remained possible, but examples of it happening were virtually non-existent until recent months. Initially the move was said to be necessitated by pandemic restrictions, but even as other courts have opened up and begun taking in-person hearings, the LTB has signalled its intent to stay “digital first” for good.
ACTO’s lead lawyer on the file said that the Tribunal’s attempts to prioritize speed have not only failed to eliminated massive backlogs and wait times for hearings, but have been detrimental to a large group of tenants.
“No one can deny it works for a lot of people, and for some people it might be better than before,” said Ryan Hardy, staff lawyer at ACTO, referring mainly to landlords seeking evictions. “Clearly if you sacrifice procedural protections, or sacrifice access to duty council, and sacrifice a lot of the rules of evidence, I’ve seen an application for an eviction disposed of in under two minutes.
“If you do that it’s probably more mathematically efficient, but at what cost? How many people got evicted who might not have been evicted under a fairer system?”
Lorraine Peever, 77, is the complainant in one of the first HRTO cases ACTO is bringing. In 2019, she tried to file a tenants application for compensation after her building – a District of Nipissing Housing Services seniors residence in North Bay with 106 apartments – was infested with bed bugs.
“I had to put on extra pants, and tuck the pants inside the socks. My arms were bitten; I put extra-long socks on my arms, a sweater. I had a towel around my neck, a fancy scarf on my head: That’s how I went to bed,” said Ms. Peever. As the bug issues continued to plague the building well into 2020, Ms. Peever grew increasingly irate at the costs borne by her and other tenants. At one point she was told to put everything she wanted to save in three plastic boxes, which meant throwing away almost everything else, including gowns she had for dancing. But on several occasions she was unable to join the new all-digital hearings on her phone.
“The things going on in this building are not right. I was getting fed up. It bothered me really, really bad,” said Ms. Peever, who eventually contacted her local legal clinic for help. “We’re all seniors and nobody wants to talk up or nothing … we’re not all bright and have computers.”
Ms. Knought’s office has fought twice now to get Ms. Peever’s case heard. Ms. Peever is still waiting to find out whether the LTB will hear her application. She missed her most recent hearing after being badly injured in a winter storm, ending up in a rehabilitation hospital with three broken vertebrae.
“No one wants to have to do a human rights complaint,” said Ms. Knought. “It’s sad that no one seems to be listening.” ACTO runs the provincially funded Tenant Duty Counsel program that puts a trained lawyer in every hearing room – once physical, now all digital – to advise tenants who are allowed to represent themselves at the Tribunal but often need guidance on how to do so. Ms. Knought has worked with the legal clinic on and off for two decades and has advised tenants in hundreds of digital hearings since COVID-19 began.
“It was a Band-Aid solution and it hasn’t been done well,” said Ms. Knought. “What we see is individuals who struggle with mute and unmute.”
In Northern Ontario, in-person hearings were rare prepandemic, she said; about twice a month the Tribunal would set up temporary shop in a Best Western hotel, but at least tenants had a chance to be heard. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. … I’ve never worked anywhere where the ability to communicate with a government body has been so bad.”
Even though the LTB has hired more adjudicators in recent months and scheduled more hearings, Ms. Knought said there are more adjournments than ever – and even if there is a hearing, the relative inexperience of many of the new adjudicators means there have been lengthening delays in getting written verdicts.
“The Attorney-General must ensure the LTB’s digital hearings are fast, fair, and easy to use for all, and guarantee an in-person hearing if a tenant or landlord requests one,” said Jessica Bell, NDP MPP and critic on the housing file, who has spoken out for months about service problems at the LTB.
Tribunals Ontario did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m hoping the government will wake up,” Ms. Peever said. “It’s been dragging on and nothing’s been settled.”