The agency responsible for resolving disputes between tenants and landlords in Ontario will hold virtual hearings on a permanent basis.
The move has raised the alarm among lawyers, doctors and tenant rights advocates, who say failing to attend remote hearings at the Landlord and Tenant Board of Ontario will bar marginalized people in the province from a fair trial. However, the board says digital hearings will increase efficiency and access in a backward system.
Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Center for Tenants Ontario, said she fears the move will primarily affect people who face language barriers, those on low incomes who lack adequate technology, and those with mental and physical illnesses. preventing them from attending long virtual hearings.
And without access to a fair hearing, Majid said, she worries more vulnerable people in Ontario will face evictions and the threat of homelessness.
“We just made an eviction machine,” Majid said, as opposed to a meaningful dispute resolution process.
Like most courts, the landlord and tenant council has moved to offer standard remote hearings in 2020 amid restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19. Since the lifting of the restrictions earlier this year, however, the board has exclusively held sessions remotely, often via Zoom or telephone. In a statement to the Star, Tribunals Ontario said the majority of people prefer remote hearings because traveling to an in-person hearing can be inconvenient.
This digital-first approach now applies to all 13 instances under the Ontario tribunals, including the Human Rights Tribunal and the Social Security Tribunal. But with the Ontario Court of Justice offering a mix of in-person and online hearings instead, lawyers are arguing that Ontario tribunals should do the same to meet people’s unique needs, and have raised questions about how to access them. until the judge will look after the war. covid.
A January 2021 report found that two in five Toronto households do not have internet access that meets Canada’s national targets, and two percent have no internet access. Cost is the biggest barrier to entry, with low-income residents, newcomers, single parents, Hispanic, South Asian, Black and Southeast Asian residents most concerned about paying their internet bills.
“What worries us is that of the people who are asking (for a personal hearing), that group of tenants are disproportionately low-income, racialized people with disabilities,” Majid said.
dr. Nav Persaud, a physician at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health in Toronto, said some of his patients were struggling to access their LTB hearings virtually. Some, he said, are older adults who have trouble hearing. Others have internet problems and resort to their hearings over the phone.
All of these factors, Persaud said, contribute to an unequal hearing for landlords versus tenants. “In general, the landlord is more likely to participate via video conference, so the parties are not on an equal footing,” he said, “although the stakes for tenants are much higher because they risk losing their home.”
Persaud and other doctors wrote these concerns in an open letter to the LTB in April. In response, the LTB said a party can request to be heard in a different format, including in person.
In its paper outlining the approach to hearing formats, Tribunals Ontario said that in-person hearings will be granted only if “a party can determine that an in-person hearing is required to accommodate a need under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” or if they can. determine that “the hearing size results in an unfair hearing.”
Persaud and Majid have criticized these alternative measures as confusing and inaccessible to those who need them most. A hearing notice emailed to a tenant in April, a copy of which was provided to the Star, contained no instructions for requesting a hearing in an alternative format.
“Not many people know they can ask for a size change,” Majid said.
From December 2020 to May 2022, Tribunals Ontario said 381 people requested a personal hearing. The majority, they said, were housed through access terminals in Ontario (one in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton), with a cell phone borrowed through the LTB phone pilot or the hearing held in writing. They emphasized that “digital first doesn’t just mean digital.”
Toronto attorney D!ONNE Renée is one of those who have requested a personal hearing. Renée has a head injury that can cause vision problems if she stares at a computer screen for long periods of time, she said. She is a recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program and also has limited access to a reliable internet connection and telephone connection.
She first attempted several times to contact the board directly by phone and email about obtaining accommodation for a face-to-face hearing. Renée said her emails went unanswered and her requests to postpone an in-person hearing, made when she was able to participate remotely by phone over a poor internet connection, were ignored. The lack of access caused her to miss one hearing, she said, in which she received an eviction notice.
Renée said the LTB’s current digital-first approach is oppressive, preserving competence and limiting access to justice. “People beg to be heard.”
Tribunals Ontario did not answer when asked how many in-person LTB hearings have been awarded since the start of the pandemic, though it said it will hold in-person hearings this summer for those who got one.
Majid said the advocacy center has not been informed of any in-person hearings held with the landlord and tenant council since it reopened in August 2020.
Before COVID, the LTB offered online and in-person hearings. Majid said she believes this mix should continue and not set a “high bar” to allow a face-to-face hearing. She added in-person hearings in the past often put people in touch with other social services, such as local mental health support.
And while the majority of people may have done well with virtual hearings, she said equal access to justice should work for everyone, not just the majority.
“The human rights code doesn’t say ‘let’s do what’s best for the majority of people,’” Majid said, adding that people who have been historically disadvantaged should not continue to be disadvantaged as the province moves beyond the pandemic.
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