Changing times for rights body – comment/editorial – Changing times for rights body
April 21, 2008

On June 30, sweeping changes to Ontario’s gridlocked human rights system will come into effect.

Aimed at speeding up the resolution of discrimination cases, the controversial reforms will send complainants directly to the Human Rights Tribunal instead of funnelling them through the Ontario Human Rights Commission first. Freed from guiding individual cases through the system, the commission is supposed to refocus its efforts on systemic issues and public education. And a new human rights legal support centre is being set up to help complainants navigate their way through the process.

But as the deadline looms, questions are being raised about whether the new system will be up and running in time for the changeover.

David Lepofsky of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance says he and others “have been concerned for weeks and months that they wouldn’t be ready, and our expectations are really being borne out.”

Among his worries are that final procedural rules for the tribunal have not yet been posted. That creates uncertainty about the process for complainants filing new cases after June 30. (People with cases already in the system can remain under the old rules until the end of the year, or opt to start over in the new process.) Lepofsky is also concerned that hiring for some positions has been left to the last minute.

Attorney-General Chris Bentley admits that “any transformation will provide its challenges” but he adds: “We’ve got the resources in place to make sure that we achieve our goal.”

Earlier this month, Bentley announced $14.1 million in one-time funding to ease the transition on top of the $17.6 million that had already been earmarked for the human rights system in the 2008-09 fiscal year. Raj Anand, a former head of the commission, was recently appointed chair of the legal support centre, and the government says a “transition director” has been developing the centre’s structure and processes. Other positions at the centre, ranging from managers and lawyers to legal secretaries, were advertised last week.

Will that be enough to iron out all the wrinkles in time for June 30? With 4,000 discrimination cases already in the system and an average of 2,500 new ones filed every year, those charged with running Ontario’s new human rights regime will have their work cut out for them.

Given the heat the government has already taken from those who worry that the changes amount to “privatizing” human rights, a lot is riding on a smooth transition.

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