The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is struggling with a growing backlog of hundreds of human rights complaints.
The OHRC annual report that was tabled on Jul 5 shows the commission is dealing with more than 3,000 active cases, of which more than 750 are considered to be backlogged. More than 160 cases are older than three years, while the average active case is 16.4 months old.
The report is a sobering reminder of the challenges that lie ahead for the human rights system as it presses on with a drastic overhaul meant to deal with the backlog and keep the human rights system accessible to all Ontarians.
The Human Rights Code Amendment Act passed last December initiated a process that will transfer responsibility for individual cases from the OHRC to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), while the commission takes on a public education role and investigates systemic human rights violations. A new body called the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre will offer legal services to individuals making complaints to the tribunal.
Ontario human rights commissioner Barbara Hall says the reform process is meant to streamline the system so that cases are processed faster and the backlog is eliminated.
“Part of [the reform] is a recognition that justice delayed is justice denied and nowhere is that perhaps more real than in the area of human rights,” says Hall.
Meanwhile, the backlog at the commission causes distress to complainants and weakens the effectiveness of the system.
“For some clients, particularly for those involved in complaints regarding sexual harassment, the longer the wait, the more difficult for the client,” says human rights lawyer Kate Sellar. “It’s an emotional strain, it’s a financial strain and there is something to be said for finality on these issues.
“For example, for a client who may be in a complaint against their current employer, or the school board that they continue to attend, it puts a real strain on the relationship and there’s always that risk of reprisal,” she says.
Delays in processing cases can also create problems for maintaining and producing evidence. Human rights lawyer Karen Sargeant represents an employer against whom a sexual harassment complaint was raised in 2001. Six years later she is only now preparing to have the complaint brought to the tribunal.
“In the meantime the individual who the allegations are made against has become ill and cannot testify,” she says. “We’re in a position now where our key witness can’t testify.”
Tom Warner of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario is cautiously optimistic that the reforms will help address the backlog problem.
“The real test will be on the implementation of the provisions set out in the new act,” he says. “What kind of assistance will be provided to the complainants and what kind of funding is available still needs to be determined and will be critical to the success of the new system.”
Although the human rights system is the main body that protects queer rights in Ontario, only a small proportion — less than three percent annually — of cases at any given time have involved sexual orientation as a basis of complaint. While the commission does protect the rights of trans people under the legislated ground of “sex,” because gender identity is not explicitly protected in the Ontario Human Rights Code, no statistics are kept about the number of trans rights complaints.