Province injects cash to jump-start rights system reform

Posted on April 9, 2008 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Ontario – Province injects cash to jump-start rights system reform: $14.1 million in funding to be announced today
April 09, 2008
Robert Benzie, Queen’s Park Bureau Chief

Attorney General Chris Bentley will today announce $14.1 million in one-time funding to “fast-track” changes to Ontario’s human rights system.

The cash infusion is designed to expedite reforms 16 months after the Liberal government enacted controversial legislation to streamline the processing of rights complaints.

“It helps to fast-track, to clear up, the cases that are outstanding so we can transition into the new system,” Bentley said in an interview yesterday. “We want to make it more friendly for the people who might use it.”

There is a backlog of about 4,000 cases and Bentley noted it can now take four or five years to resolve a complaint.

“It’s very long. For many people, that’s not what justice looks like. Our goal for most cases is (resolution within) a year or less,” he said.

That’s why Bentley and his predecessor, former attorney general Michael Bryant, pushed a three-pronged strategy that allows complainants to take their concerns directly to tribunals for adjudication rather than requiring them to go first to the commission.

Starting on June 30, the government will phase in an overhauled system consisting of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and a new Human Rights Legal Support Centre. It is expected to be fully operational by Dec. 31.

Opponents of the changes – including the New Democrats, who voted against the legislation – argue that they effectively privatize the system because complainants would have to hire lawyers and investigators. The Progressive Conservatives also voiced concerns that the bill was poorly thought out.

Critics noted that under the old law, victims of discrimination could have the commission investigate their complaints and prosecute offenders regardless of whether they could afford private counsel.

Bentley insisted the government “listened very carefully” to such charges before modernizing an institution that dates back to 1962.

“We brought in the legal support centre to address the concerns about access” to lawyers, the attorney general said.

“It’s important that we resolve complaints quickly,” he said, adding the streamlining should allow the Ontario Human Rights Commission “more time and capacity … to identify systemic issues” in society rather than getting bogged down tackling individual complaints.

The $14.1 million is in addition to $17.6 million the province had already earmarked for the human rights system in 2008-09, and should jump-start the changes, Bentley said.

The transition money includes $7.6 million to build and start up the new system, $3.6 million for upgraded and accessible office space for the human rights tribunal and the fledgling human rights legal support centre, and $2.9 million to resolve the backlog.

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