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What are administrative tribunals in Ontario?

If you’ve ever seen a courtroom on television, you’d probably be disappointed by seeing an Ontario courtroom in real life. Not every trial has a jury (in fact most don’t), and rarely does the impeccably dressed lawyer make a long, impassioned speech at the end to sway the jury onto their side.

The truth is that roughly 99% of all civil disputes in Ontario settle before they ever see a courtroom, even if that sometimes happens on the courthouse steps. The court process is lengthy, expensive, and has no guarantee of success for either side. While many people still believe in that image of having their ‘day in court,’ the truth is that those happen rarely and are usually more expensive than anything else.

Yet there is a whole other ‘court’ system that exists in Ontario in the world of administrative tribunals. These are not actually courts, and are not presided over by judges. Instead, these tribunals are quasi-court systems meant to deal with specific issues, from human rights to municipal licensing, and are generally run by adjudicators who are experts in that particular area of law. 

So, what are administrative tribunals in Ontario? How do they work, and how can a lawyer help you navigate the worlds of public and administrative litigation?

What tribunals exist in Ontario? 

There are numerous tribunals in Ontario, and each of them specializes in a different focus. Depending on the nature of your matter, there may be a tribunal specifically dedicated to that area such as the Animal Care Review Board, the Workplace Safety Insurance Appeals Tribunal, or the Social Benefits Tribunal.

Then there are tribunals which are significantly more familiar, such as the Ontario Land Tribunal, the Human Rights Tribunal, and the Landlord Tenant Board. While focused, these tribunals have a broad jurisdiction to deal with a variety of issues, and each of them has a unique focus. For example:

The Ontario Land Tribunal

The Ontario Land Tribunal was created in 2021 to replace the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which had previously replaced the better-known Ontario Municipal Board. This Tribunal deals with all matters of land use planning, such as zoning by-laws, subdivision plans, variances, developmental charges, plan approval, etc. 

The Tribunal hears matters regularly from builders, planners, and property owners that are often seeking to appeal decisions made by municipal councils, land division committees, or the Committee of Adjustment. If an owner is unsatisfied with one of these administrative decisions, for example, then the Land Tribunal is the next stop. 

The Ontario Land Tribunal has a variety of methods to resolve disputes, such as voluntary mediation, case management conferences (meetings with an adjudicator to discuss the issues involved), or hearings on the merits of an issue. While parties can choose to represent themselves, legal expertise can be invaluable given the frequent high dollar value of the issues involved. 

The Human Rights Tribunal

Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal has the authority to hear matters related to human rights discrimination on a list of enumerated grounds including gender identity and expression, disability, age, creed, and sexual orientation. This authority comes from Ontario’s Human Rights Code, and the discrimination can happen in the workplace, in housing and accommodation, or in providing goods and services. 

The Human Rights Tribunal is particularly unique since in 2008 the rules changed to open the Tribunal for ‘direct access,’ meaning that parties did not need a lawyer to make an application. However, while the Tribunal’s process is friendlier to individuals, those bringing forth a case must still present their case and their evidence, prepare documents, assemble witnesses, etc. This is where a lawyer with knowledge and expertise in human rights matters can be helpful to an Applicant when presenting their case in the best light or to the Respondent to defend against serious allegations. 

While courts can rule on human rights matters, many judges are not human rights experts, and so the Tribunal may be preferable over going through the court. The Tribunal also cannot award costs, so unlike court there are no legal cost awards if your case is unsuccessful. However, the Tribunal is currently dealing with a significant backlog, and cases can take years to be heard, so the system is not without its challenges. 

The Landlord Tenant Board

The Landlord Tenant Board hears matters under the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 which include a wide range of matters between landlords and their tenant relating to rent, repairs, evictions etc. The Tribunal’s role is to resolve disputes through mediation and adjudication, but also to provide information to landlords and tenants about their rights and responsibilities. 

Much like the Human Rights Tribunal, the Landlord Tenant Board attempts to solve matters with mediation prior to moving towards a full hearing. Additionally, the Board also recognizes that tenants are particularly vulnerable, especially when it comes to matters about their housing. The Board understands that many tenants cannot afford legal representation, and thus offers them extended patience and understanding. As a landlord, legal representation can be crucial for helping to put your case forward in the best light. 

Can a court overturn a tribunal decision?

In short, yes. Tribunals operate under their authority from statutes, which are written laws, and so a tribunal’s jurisdiction and the limits of what they can do are fairly set in stone. That does not mean that tribunals will not issue decisions that are occasionally surprising or newsworthy, but they generally stay within the scope of their authority.

Ontario’s Superior Court has the authority to overturn tribunal decisions if the decisions are outside of the tribunal’s authority, or if the parties have not been given procedural fairness. Courts will review to ensure that each party has been treated fairly throughout the tribunal hearing. If they haven’t, a court will often send the matter back to the tribunal to hear again, or on rare occasions may implement their own ruling instead. 

One last interesting note – tribunal decisions are not binding on future decisions from a court. When reviewing existing law, a court may take notice of tribunal decisions and how they have handled similar matters, but they do not need to follow suit like they do decisions from the Supreme Court, or the Court of Appeal. 

Final Thoughts

Each tribunal is different, and each has its own separate rulebook helping parties identify best practices for attending hearings and presenting their cases. However, the purpose of these tribunals is usually similar across the board – they play a key role in educating the public and easing some of the burden on the court system.

If you need to bring a case before or appear before a tribunal, don’t do it alone. Retaining legal counsel can help not only make your time at the tribunal smoother but may help increase your chances of success. We routinely appear before tribunals on behalf of parties of all sizes throughout the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo Regions. Contact us today to set up a consultation.