The agency responsible for resolving disputes between tenants and landlords in Ontario will permanently hold virtual hearings.
The move has raised alarms for lawyers, doctors and tenants’ rights advocates, who say the lack of remote hearings at the Ontario Landlords and Tenants Council will prevent the province’s marginalized people from getting a fair hearing. The council, however, says that digital audiences will increase efficiency and access in a backward system.
Dania Majid, an attorney at the Advocacy Center for Tenants Ontario, said she fears the measure will especially affect those facing language barriers, low-income people who lack adequate technology and those with mental and physical illnesses that prevent them from sitting in long virtual audiences. .
And without access to a fair hearing, Majid said, she fears that the most vulnerable people in Ontario face evictions and the threat of homelessness.
“We just created an eviction machine,” Majid said, in opposition to a meaningful dispute resolution process.
Like most awarding bodies, the Landlords and Tenants Board moved to offer remote hearings by default in 2020 amid restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19. Since lifting restrictions earlier this year, however, the board has continued to exclusively hold hearings remotely, often via Zoom or phone. In a statement to the Star, Ontario Courts said most people prefer remote hearings as traveling to an in-person hearing can be inconvenient.
This digital approach now applies to all 13 organs of the Ontario Courts, including the Court of Human Rights and the Court of Social Benefits. But with the Ontario Court of Justice moving to offer a mix of in-person and online hearings, advocates argue that Ontario Courts should do the same to address people’s specific needs and have raised questions about what access to the court will look like. justice after the trial. COVID.
A January 2021 report found that two in five Toronto homes do not have Internet access that meets Canada’s national targets and two percent do not have Internet access. Cost is the biggest barrier to access, with low-income residents, newcomers, single parents, Latin Americans, South Asians, blacks and Southeast Asians most concerned about paying their internet bill.
“What concerns us is that of the people asking (for a personal hearing), this group of tenants is disproportionately low-income, people of color with disabilities,” Majid said.
The Doctor. Nav Persaud, physician at Unity Health’s MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions in Toronto, said that some of his patients have had trouble accessing their LTB audiences virtually. Some, he said, are older adults who have hearing problems. Others have internet problems, resorting to phoning their audiences.
All of these factors, Persaud said, contribute to an unequal audience between landlords and tenants. “In general, the landlord may be more likely to participate via video conference, so the parties are not on an equal footing,” he said, “even though the stakes are much higher for tenants because they risk losing their homes. ”
Persaud and other doctors described these concerns in an open letter to LTB in April. In response, LTB said that a party can request a hearing in a different format, including in person.
In its document outlining the approach to hearing formats, the Ontario Courts said that in-person hearings will be granted only if “a party can establish that an in-person hearing is necessary as an accommodation for a need related to the Ontario Human Rights Code.” ” or if they can establish “the format of the hearing will result in an unfair hearing”.
Persaud and Majid criticized these alternative measures as confusing and inaccessible to those who need it most. In an emailed hearing notice to a tenant in April, a copy of which was provided to the Star, there were no instructions on how to request a hearing in an alternate format.
“A lot of people don’t know they can ask for a format change,” Majid said.
From December 2020 to May 2022, the Ontario Courts said 381 people asked for a personal hearing. Most, they said, were accommodated through access terminals in Ontario (one located in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton), borrowing a cell phone through the LTB phone pilot or conducting the hearing in writing. They emphasized that “digital-first does not mean digital-only”.
Toronto attorney D!ONNE Renée is one of the people who requested an in-person hearing. Renee has a head injury that can cause vision problems when looking at a computer screen for long periods, she said. A beneficiary of the Ontario Disability Support Program, she also has limited access to a reliable Internet connection and telephone connectivity.
She first tried to contact the board directly several times by phone and email about granting accommodation for a personal hearing. Renee said her emails went unanswered, and her requests to adjourn to an in-person hearing, made when she was able to attend remotely by phone over a poor internet connection, were ignored. The lack of access caused her to miss a hearing, she said, in which she received an eviction order.
Renée said that LTB’s current digital-first approach is oppressive and that it perpetuates ableism and limits access to justice. “People are begging to be heard.”
Ontario courts did not respond when asked how many in-person LTB hearings have been granted since the start of the pandemic, though they said they will begin holding in-person hearings this summer for those who have received one.
Majid said the advocacy center has not been informed of any in-person hearings held at the Landlords and Tenants Council since it reopened in August 2020.
Before COVID, LTB offered both online and in-person audiences. Majid said he believes this mixing should continue and that there should be no “high level” set for granting a personal audience. She added that in-person hearings in the past often connected people to other social services, such as local mental health supports.
And while most people might have done well with virtual hearings, she said equitable access to justice must work for everyone, not just the majority.
“The Human Rights Code doesn’t say ‘let’s do what is best for the most people,'” Majid said, adding that historically disadvantaged people should not continue to be disadvantaged as the province overcomes the pandemic.
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_