System is currently plagued by delay and backlog, say practitioners
While practitioners say delay and backlog are acute at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), Tribunals Ontario has launched a new digital tool, in the hopes of increasing access to justice at the LTB.
Announced July 2, Navigate Tribunals Ontario contains information about the Residential Tenancies Act and LTB rules and processes. New features will be added this summer, including new pathways, information on co-operative housing evictions and care home and mobile home tenancies. Over the next three years Navigate Tribunals Ontario will be expanded to more tribunals, boards and commissions, said the Ministry of the Attorney General.
If accessible and maintained properly, Navigate Tribunals Ontario is a “helpful tool to offer” but is not a substitute for legal advice, says Caryma Sa’d, who practises landlord-and-tenant law, among other areas. The text is dense and, while a lawyer familiar with the Residential Tenancies Act can make sense of it, the members of the public who need the tool may find it difficult to use, she says.
“We need to be mindful of their language barriers, for example, or cognitive issues or reading levels – I don't know that this tool takes it into account, at least at first glance. I don't think it was as intuitive or as straightforward as it could be. And in trying to simplify, it leaves out certain aspects of nuance that are relevant.”
“As a first iteration, again, the concept is good,” says Sa’d. “But it will need to be refined quite significantly.”
Sean Weir, executive chair of Tribunals Ontario, said in a press release that Navigate Tribunals Ontario “is an example of how we are putting users first as we expand our digital services to improve access to justice.”
The tool is part of the MAG’s Justice Accelerated Strategy, which aims to expedite access to justice by moving services online.
“The new and innovative Navigate Tribunals Ontario is a great example of the breakthroughs we are achieving for the people of Ontario through the Justice Accelerated strategy which is focusing on building a more accessible, responsive and resilient justice system” said Attorney General Doug Downey. “This groundbreaking digital solution will better meet the expectations of people looking to resolve disputes at the Landlord and Tenant Board and other tribunals across the province.”
Delays at the LTB are “unprecedented,” both in terms of waiting for a hearing and waiting to have orders issued, says Harry Fine, a paralegal and former LTB adjudicator.
“An online tool is not going to do any good, it's simply a talking point for ministerial staff when asked what they are doing about the problem.”
Aside from the backlog created by COVID, the process for proceedings in the Residential Tenancies Act are “ripe for abuse,” he says. For his landlord clients, justice delayed is truly justice denied.
“There are rarely cost consequences for bad behaviour. Set asides and reviews by tenants are routinely abandoned on the hearing day, having accomplished nothing but to extend the eviction date by 2 months.”
“Landlords are at their wit's end, many losing their properties,” says Fine. “Damages are generally unrecoverable, which creates a scenario where delay is as good as a win when a tenant isn't paying rent.”
Tribunals Ontario is also working on a new case-management system: The Tribunals Ontario Portal. Parties to disputes will file applications, upload documents, monitor their case file, communicate with other parties and seek help from a mediator.
Navigate Tribunals Ontario is part of the tribunal system’s planned shift to a digital-first approach, says Sa’d.
“My understanding is that Tribunals Ontario plans to permanently shift to a primarily online virtual based hearing/mediation format… I have some concerns about that.”
“Bearing in mind that not everyone has equal access to technology or to quiet spaces to conduct a hearing, or necessarily to cell phone minutes or a landline,” she says. “Those are real barriers that are just, at the moment, not being accounted for. And people are falling through the cracks. That's a problem during an affordable housing crisis.”
While a digital tool with a good user interface is worth investing in, the LTB also needs well-trained adjudicators, timely decisions, more transparency with scheduling processes and hearing blocks that are not overbooked on the assumption that some participants will not show, says Sa’d.
“The real issue right now, to my mind, is the lay at the board, she says. “It's good to be thinking, as well, about getting legal information to people. But again, it has to be accessible.”
If there’s too much delay, the legal issues become moot, she adds. For a small landlord, the arears accumulate. For tenants, when an urgent matter takes five months, they are left with the issue – whether it be a flood, mould or harassment, for example – in the interim.
“Anything that speeds up processes without compromising procedural fairness, that should be, in my mind, the focus for improving the state of the LTB.”