PHOTO: Toronto Star
The move has raised alarms for lawyers, physicians and advocates of tenants’ rights, who say defaulting to remote hearings at the Landlord and Tenant Board of Ontario will shut out marginalized people in the province from having a fair hearing. The board, however, says digital hearings will increase efficiency and access in a backlogged system.
Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said she fears the move will especially affect those who face language barriers, low-income people who don’t have adequate technology, and those with mental and physical illnesses that bar them from sitting through lengthy virtual hearings.
And without access to a fair hearing, Majid said, she worries more vulnerable people in Ontario will be facing evictions and the threat of homelessness.
“We’ve just created an eviction machine,” Majid said, as opposed to a meaningful dispute resolution process.
Like most adjudicating bodies, the Landlord and Tenant Board moved to offer remote hearings by default in 2020 amid restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. Since the lifting of restrictions earlier this year, however, the board has continued to exclusively hold hearings remotely, often by Zoom or telephone. In a statement to the Star, Tribunals Ontario said the majority of people have preferred remote hearings, as travelling to an in-person hearing can be inconvenient.
This digital-first approach now applies to all 13 bodies under Tribunals Ontario, including the Human Rights Tribunal and the Social Benefits Tribunal. But with the Ontario Court of Justice moving instead to offer a mix of in-person and online hearings, advocates argue that Tribunals Ontario should do the same to meet people’s unique needs, and have raised questions about what access to justice will look like post-COVID.
A January 2021 report found that two in five of Toronto households don’t have access to internet that is up to speed with Canada’s national targets, and two per cent have no internet access. Cost is the biggest barrier to access, with low-income, newcomer, single parent, Latin American, South Asian, Black and Southeast Asian residents worrying the most about paying their internet bill.
“What’s concerning to us is that, of the people who do ask (for an in-person hearing), that group of tenants is disproportionately low-income, racialized people with disabilities,” Majid said.
Dr. Nav Persaud, a physician with the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health in Toronto, said some of his patients have had trouble accessing their LTB hearings virtually. Some, he said, are older adults who have trouble hearing. Others have internet issues, resorting to calling in to their hearings by phone.
All these factors, Persaud said, contribute to an inequitable hearing for landlords versus tenants. “In general, the landlord might be more likely to join via video conference, so the parties aren’t on equal footing,” he said, “even though the stakes are much higher for tenants because they are at risk of losing their housing.”
Persaud and other physicians outlined these concerns in an open letter to the LTB in April. In response, the LTB said a party can request to have a hearing in a different format, including in person.
In its document outlining the approach to hearing formats, Tribunals Ontario said in-person hearings will be granted only if “a party can establish that an in-person hearing is required as an accommodation for an Ontario Human Rights Code-related need,” or if they can establish “the hearing format will result in an unfair hearing.”
Persaud and Majid have criticized these alternative measures as confusing and inaccessible to those who need it most. In a hearing notice emailed to a tenant as recently as April, a copy of which was provided to the Star, there were no instructions on how to request a hearing in an alternative format.
“Not a lot of people know they can ask for a change of format,” Majid said.
From December 2020 to May 2022, Tribunals Ontario said 381 people have asked for an in-person hearing. The majority, they said, were accommodated through access terminals in Ontario (one each located in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton), borrowing a cellphone through the LTB phone pilot, or conducting the hearing in writing. They emphasized that “digital-first does not mean digital-only.”
Toronto advocate D!ONNE Renée is one of the people who requested an in-person hearing. Renée has a head injury that can cause vision troubles when staring at a computer screen for long periods, she said. An Ontario Disability Support Program recipient, she also has limited access to a reliable internet connection and phone connectivity.
She first tried to contact the board directly multiple times by phone and email about being granted accommodation for an in-person hearing. Renée said her emails were unanswered, and her requests to adjourn to an in-person hearing, made when she was able to attend remotely by phone on a poor internet connection, were ignored. The lack of access caused her to miss one hearing, she said, in which she was served an eviction order.
Renée said the current digital-first approach of the LTB is oppressive, and that it perpetuates ableism and limits access to justice. “People are begging to be heard.”
Tribunals Ontario did not answer when asked how many in-person LTB hearings have been granted since the pandemic began, though it said it will begin holding in-person hearings this summer to those who have been granted one.
Majid said the advocacy centre has not been informed of any in-person hearings held at the Landlord and Tenant Board 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 that there shouldn’t be “a high bar” set to grant an in-person hearing. She added face-to-face hearings in the past often connected people to other social services, like local mental health supports.
And while the majority of people may have fared well with virtual hearings, she said equitable access to justice should work for everyone, not just the majority.
“The Human Rights Code does not say ‘let’s do what’s best for the majority of people,’ ” Majid said, adding people who are historically disadvantaged should not continue to be disadvantaged as the province moves on from the pandemic.