Any person may find themselves in litigation over a landlord-tenant dispute. For an average individual, who does not work with lawyers, a lease agreement gone sour, a failure to do repairs in a building, or a refusal to make an apartment habitable by the lease-date, or an unexpected eviction notice can bring someone who never thought they’d need a lawyer into litigation. In a time when many tenants are dealing with unemployment or sources of income made precarious, due to COVID-19, it is all the more important for there to be an accessible back-stop against unlawful evictions. The efficiency of that back-stop is on the chopping block.
Today’s tenants are more vulnerable not just because of lack work or precarious income streams. In addition, the N12 loophole (allowing an individual landlord to take back a unit if an immediate family member intends to move in for 12 months or more) provided the justification for 1,542 eviction applications, according to Shane Dingman for The Globe and Mail. By 2018, the N12 eviction applications skyrocketed to 2,919, Dingman reported. And Toronto’s rental market has a record low of vacancies, let alone affordable ones. For a tenant seeking redress, tribunals have been the first back-stop.
Tribunals have been a more accessible way than court to deal with disputes for people who cannot afford to hire lawyers. A tribunal hearing can be less formal than a court trial, not to mention less costly. As a result, tenants with a grievance against their landlords may seek a hearing before the Landlord-Tenant Tribunal. That entry point has provided a bridge to people for whom the judicial system has been unaffordable, incomprehensible and inaccessible.
Tribunals preside over landlord-tenant disputes, social benefit claims, and human rights complaints, to name a few. The Landlord and Tenant Board handles over 50,000 applications per year, according to a Tribunal Watch Ontario estimate. However, since Doug Ford took office in Ontario, the Progressive-Conservative government has cut down the number of full-time adjudicators presiding over various Tribunals. This is an access to justice issue that will affect those whose only way of accessing the legal system may be through tribunal hearings, not expensive, protracted court trials.
Executive director of Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW), Marion Overholt, wrote an email to The Lawyers Daily, saying as much. “Once you take away that sense of fairness, you really diminish people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. I really feel strongly about that.”
Tribunal Watch Ontario, according to John Schofield of The Lawyers Daily, reported that the number of full-time adjudicators at the Human Rights Tribunal has dropped from 22 in 2018 to nine, and the Social Benefits Tribunal went from 22 full-time adjudicators in 2018 to 11. The Landlord and Tenant Board has been less severely impacted, but the number of full-time adjudicators has still dropped significantly, from 44 in 2018 to 31 now.
Lawyer and legal scholar Ron Ellis, a co-founder of Tribunal Watch Ontario and author of the 2016 book Unjust by Design: Canada’s Administrative Justice System, predicts that COVID19 will lead to “a huge wave of claims descending on these tribunals just at the moment they’ve been decimated by government,” according to an interview by Schofield for The Lawyers Daily.
One possibility to cope with the reduced staffing is for Ontario tribunals to shift to written submissions rather than oral hearings. The problem is that this would pose an added barrier to many individuals who make claims to the Human Rights, Social Benefits or Landlord-Tenant tribunals. According to Ellis, in his interview with The Lawyers Daily, claimants because of disability were 250 per cent more likely to win a positive result if they could present their case orally, rather than in written submissions.
The decrease in adjudicators means that the most vulnerable individuals in society will have longer waits and a more difficult time getting heard in the bodies that are most accessible to them. We, who advocate for the vulnerable at the tribunal level, are keeping an eye on what further changes may come.