Overhauling the Ontario human rights system: recent developments in case law and legislative reform.

Author:Tsun, Tiffany
Position:Senior Board Notes Comments and Reviews/Notes, Commentaires et Revues du Comite Executif
 
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Abstract

Recent reforms to the Ontario human rights system have generated substantial debate. Prior to these reforms, human rights complaints were screened and investigated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission before being either dismissed or referred to the Human Rights Tribunal for adjudication. The Commission played a variety of potentially conflicting roles in this arrangement, acting as the complainant's advocate, the complaint's investigator, and as the Tribunal's gatekeeper. Under the new system, applications are to be made directly to the Tribunal. The revamped Commission will instead focus on policy development, public education, and public inquiries. A new institution, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, will provide legal assistance to claimants. Some equality advocates consider these reforms to be a government effort to privatize the human rights system and to renege on its commitment to provide public funding for the investigation of complaints. Legal practitioners and other proponents, on the other hand, view the reforms as the beginning of an accessible and efficient method by which claimants will be better able to enforce their human rights.

This note acknowledges concerns that the reforms will increase the burden on non-governmental groups and complainants, but concludes that the reforms representa necessary step towards effective enforcement of the Human Rights Code. The reforms address important deficiencies with the old system. Moreover, the Ontario Human Rights Commission's new role in education and policy development promises to provide effective oversight of systemic human rights issues for the first time. These developments are especially timely because the choice of forum for human rights claims has expanded since Tranchemontagne v. Ontario (Director, Disability Support Program) in which the Supreme Court of Canada held that every tribunal with jurisdiction to hear questions of law is also a forum for human rights claims, a decision that expanded claimants" choice of forum in which to raise human rights concerns.

This note begins with a historical overview of Ontario's human rights system, and the problems affecting enforcement of the Human Rights Code under the old system. It describes the recent legislative reforms and the impact of Tranchemontagne, provides an assessment of the new system, and responds to some of its critics. The note concludes with some remarks on the next steps to be taken toward maintaining an effective and accessible human rights system.

Resume

Les reformes recentes du systeme des droits de la personne en Ontario ont produit un debat substantiel. Avant ces reformes, les plaintes devaient etre triees et examinees par la Commission Ontarienne des droits de la personne avant d'etre rejetees ou renvoyees au Tribunal des droits de la personne de l'Ontario pour jugement. Dans cet arrangement, la Commission a joue plusieurs roles potentiellement opposes: defenseur du plaignant, investigateur de la plainte, et gardien du Tribunal. Sous le nouveau systeme, les applications doivent etre faites directement au Tribunal. La Commission ameliore se fixe plutot sur le developpement de la politique, sur l'education publique, et sur les enquetes publiques. Une nouvelle institution, le Centre d'assistance juridique en matiere de droits de la personne, fournira l'assistance legale aux plaignants. Quelques defenseurs de l'egalite considerent ces reformes comine un effort du gouvernement pour privatiser le systeme des droits de la personne et pour revenir sur son engagement de fournir la subvention publique pour l'investigation des plaintes. D' un autre cote, les praticiens legaux et autres partisans regardent ces reformes comme le commencement d'une methode accessible et efficace par laquelle les plaignants seront mieux capables d'appliquer leurs droits de la personne.

Cette note s'inquiete de l'augmentation de la pression mise par ces reformes sur les groupes et les plaignants non gouvernementaux, mais conclut que celles-ci representent une etape necessaire vers l'execution efficace du Code. Les reformes adressent les manques importants du vieux systeme. De plus, le nouveau role de la Commission Ontarienne des droits de la personne dans l'education et le developpement de politique promet de fournir un controle efficace sur les problemes systematiques des droits de la personne pour la premiere fois. Ces developpements sont surtout opportuns parce que le choix de forum pour les reclamations de droits de la personne a augmente depuis Tranchemontagne v. Ontario (Director, Disability Support Program), dans lequel la Cour Supreme du Canada a tenu que chaque tribunal ayant la juridiction pour entendre des questions de loi soit aussi un forum pour les reclamations de droits de la personne, une decision qui a augmente le nombre de forum dans lequel les plaignants peuvent partager leurs inquietudes sur les droits de la personne.

La note commence avec un apercu historique du systeme de droits de la personne en Ontario, et des problemes affectant l'execution du Code des droits de la personne sous le vieux systeme. Elle decrit les reformes legislatives recentes et l'impact de Tranchemontagne, fournit une evaluation du nouveau systeme, et repond a un certain nombre de critiques. Le commentaire conclut avec des remarques sur les prochaines etapes qui doivent etre prises pour un systeme de droits de la personne efficace et accessible.

I INTRODUCTION II OVERVIEW OF ONTARIO'S HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM Origins of Human Rights in Ontario Ontario's Human Rights System Prior to the Recent Reforms III PROBLEMS AFFECTING EFFECTIVE ENFORCEMENT OF THE CODE Limited Accessibility of the Human Rights System Inability to Address Systemic Discrimination IV ONTARIO'S HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM AFTER LEGISLATIVE REFORM AND TRANCHEMONTAGNE Legislative Overhaul of Ontario's Human Rights System Tranchemontagne: Multiple Forums for Raising Human Rights Concern V ASSESSMENT OF THE NEW HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM IN ONTARIO Inadequate Funding Resulting in Limited Access to Tribunal The System's Vulnerability to Respondents' Abuse "Privatization" of the Human Rights System VI CONCLUDING REMARKS: THE NEXT STEPS TO MAINTAINING AN EFFECTIVE AND ACCESSIBLE HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM I INTRODUCTION

The complexity of human rights issues today requires a judicial and administrative regime which addresses both systemic problems that affect groups of people as well as the rights and interests of individuals. Between 2006 and 2008, case law and legislative reforms have marked a pivotal chapter in Ontario's history of human rights protection. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Tranchemontagne v. Ontario (Director, Disability Support Program) (1) that every tribunal with jurisdiction to hear questions of law is also a forum for human rights claims. This decision greatly expanded claimants' choice of forum in which to raise their human rights concerns. On June 30th, 2008, legislative amendments came into force, with the effect of reforming the system for adjudicating human rights complaints under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the "Code").

The new system now comprises three institutions: the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the "Commission"), the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (the "Tribunal"), and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (the "Centre"). The substantive rights and the scope of the Code remain unaffected by the reforms. Prior to the legislative reforms, human rights complaints were screened and investigated by the Commission. Complaints would then either be dismissed or referred to the Tribunal for adjudication. During this process, the Commission played a variety of conflicting roles, acting as the complainant's advocate, the complaint's investigator, and as the Tribunal's gatekeeper. Under the new system, applications are to be made directly to the Tribunal. The revamped Commission will instead focus on policy development, public education, and public inquiries. From now on, a new institution, the Centre, will provide legal assistance to claimants.

Both opponents and supporters of these legislative developments share a common desire to create an efficient and fair system of enforcing the Ontario Human Rights Code. They differ, however, as to their views of how the system should be structured. On one hand, non-governmental and equality-seeking groups consider these reforms to be an attempt by the government to "privatize" the human rights system and to renege on its commitment to provide public funding for the investigation of complaints. Legal practitioners and other proponents, on the other hand, view the reforms as the beginning of an accessible and efficient method for claimants to enforce their human rights.

This note acknowledges concerns that the reforms to the system will increase the burden on non-governmental groups and complainants; the note concludes, however, that the reforms represent a necessary step towards effective enforcement of the Code, because they address important deficiencies with the old system. Moreover, the Ontario Human Rights Commission's new role in education and policy development promises to provide effective oversight of systemic human rights issues for the first time. These developments are especially timely because the choice of forum for human rights claims has expanded due to Tranchemontagne.

This note is organized into six parts. Part II provides a historical overview of Ontario's human rights system. Part III outlines the problems affecting enforcement of the Human Rights Code under the old system. Part IV describes the legislative reforms and the impact of Tranchemontagne. Part V provides an assessment of the new system and responds to some of its critics. The comment concludes with some remarks on the next steps to be taken toward maintaining an effective and accessible human rights system.

II OVERVIEW OF ONTARIO'S HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM

Origins of Human Rights in Ontario

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