Hot! Ontario boosts rights protection – national – Ontario boosts rights protection
June 30, 2008. EMMA REILLY, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Ontario residents filing human-rights complaints will have faster service and access to free legal support as a result of changes to the province’s Human Rights Code taking effect Monday.

“We’re bringing human-rights protection into the 21st century,” Attorney-General Chris Bentley said. “We’re making sure that the rights outlined in the code actually have the strong public protection they require.”

The changes to the code streamline the process for individuals who feel they have been discriminated against, Mr. Bentley said.

Under the old system, anyone with a human-rights issue filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission for review. If the commission ruled that the complaint had legitimacy – a process that could take months to complete – the case would then be referred to the Human Rights Tribunal.

Of the 2,300 complaints filed to the Human Rights Commission in 2006 and 2007, 7 per cent were rejected before being passed to the tribunal. The cases that were referred could then take up to five years to resolve, Mr. Bentley said.

Now, Ontario residents will bring their concerns directly to the tribunal, bypassing the commission. The Ministry of the Attorney-General estimates the new system should complete hearings within one year.

“It’s a bit overwhelming if it takes you four to five years to have a hearing,” said Soma Ray-Ellis, a Toronto-based lawyer specializing in human rights and employment issues. “Now, we should be able to see hearings very quickly.”

Ms. Ray-Ellis called the old process “harassing in and of itself.”

Ontario residents will also be able to access free legal advice to guide them through the process, a move that Mr. Bentley calls “the first of its kind in Canada.”

“People who were bringing complaints to the Human Rights Commission realized that the law is pretty complex,” he said. “They needed some legal support.

“They’re going to have the type of legal support that they’ve never had before.”

The legislation also removes a $10,000 cap on awards for “mental anguish” caused by discrimination.

Ms. Ray-Ellis said that is important “because if you look at the United States, you can get millions of dollars in damages for human-rights issues.

“They only protect a few things, but they give you big awards. In Canada, we protect a lot of things, but traditionally we have given out small awards.”

The law also outlines that individuals can now be compensated for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

Other changes to the law include an extension of the window to file a complaint to one year from six months. The previous stipulation eliminated 50 human-rights complaints in 2006 and 2007.

The legislation, passed in December 2006, has been in the works since the 1990s.

Mr. Bentley said the system originated almost 50 years ago and had become outdated and slow.

“There was an almost universal call for change,” he said. “At the end of the day, we don’t strengthen human rights protections by procedures that are too slow and too cumbersome.”

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