Rights complainants get legal help

Posted on June 30, 2008 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates

TheStar.com – Ontario – Rights complainants get legal help: Centre offers free representation but firms wary of workers’ powers under system that starts today
June 30, 2008. Tracey Tyler, Legal Affairs Reporter

While it remains to be seen whether a new human rights system that takes effect in Ontario today will be an improvement over its predecessor, people with discrimination complaints probably won’t have to worry about hiring a lawyer.

Nearly two dozen lawyers and paralegals have been hired for a new human rights legal support centre that’s been set up in Toronto to provide free legal advice to complainants as well as representation before a tribunal.

Raj Anand, who heads the board of the new centre, believes it delivers a complete answer to critics who were afraid people complaining of human rights violations would be left on their own to battle employers or government agencies in discrimination cases.

The new system revolves around the concept of giving complainants “direct access” to an adjudicator. Under the old system, the Ontario Human Rights Commission would first launch an investigation into a complaint before deciding whether it deserved a hearing. Cases were often stuck in the bureaucracy for years.

If they did make it to a tribunal, commission lawyers would present the case.

But Anand said it’s a myth commission lawyers were acting on behalf of complainants. In fact, their role was similar to that of a Crown attorney; they didn’t answer to complainants and could proceed as they saw fit, he said.

“I can tell you, some of the greatest battles I’ve had while representing complainants has been with the commission” lawyers, said Anand, who once headed the human rights commission and is now in private practice.

If complainants want to hire their own lawyer, they still can. But one notable feature of the new support centre is that it isn’t restricted to serving only those with low incomes, which is generally the case with legal clinics funded by the province, as the new support centre is. There is no financial eligibility criteria, Anand said.

But while the support centre may satisfy those who worried complainants would be left to represent themselves, it may not do much for those who say the deck is stacked against employers under the new system.

Some law firms who represent employers began holding workshops more than a year ago, to prepare corporate managers for the new human rights regime. At one, Robb Macpherson, a lawyer at McCarthy, Tetrault, a big downtown Toronto law firm, predicted it will be “a field day” for complainants. In addition to state-funded legal counsel, they gain more bargaining power under the new system.

One reason is that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal plans to schedule hearings within about three months of receiving a complaint. That means employers will be under more pressure to work out a quick settlement with workers who’ve filed a human rights complaint – or they’ll find themselves before a tribunal, facing the prospect of having a more severe penalty imposed.

Lawyers who act for respondents – those accused of human rights violations – expect to see an increase in complaints, not only because it’s supposed to be easier for individual complaints to get before a tribunal, but because third parties such as unions and community groups will be able to launch complaints on their behalf.

Courts will also gain new power to hear human rights complaints and will be able to order employers, in the context of these cases, to reinstate workers who were wrongfully dismissed from their jobs.

The tribunal has only been hearing about 150 cases a year, but it will likely have to deal with several thousand more than that once complaints start getting sent there directly under the new system.

As a result, many cases are expected to be resolved through mediation.

The legal support centre, at 400 University Ave., plans to be open Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursdays, when it will be 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. For further information, go to www.hrlsc.on.ca.

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