Equality and Justice
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An Overview of the Human Rights System and the Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario

Published on January 21, 2020

An Overview of the Human Rights System and the Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario

Sabrina Bendaoud

Many people in Ontario are aware that there is an existing legal system to which you can submit a complaint when your human rights have been violated or when you wish to appeal a decision that affects your social rights – but not everyone knows what this system actually looks like or how it works.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a comprehensive legal guide to navigating human rights law in Ontario, but it can provide overview information about the administrative structure of our social justice and human rights system.

You probably know, or have heard about, the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Code. While the Code is a law that establishes the human rights protections that individuals in Ontario benefit from, the Commission is the organization that administers this Code and advocates for human rights through research, public education, and policy work in Ontario. The Human Rights Tribunal, on the other hand, is the agency that receives human rights complaints and reviews them. What is important to note is that this agency is actually one of seven tribunals, each of which focus on a different type of complaint relating to social issues.

The Seven Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario

1. The Child and Family Services Review Board - This tribunal reviews complaints on matters regarding children and youth, their education, and families.

2. The Custody Review Board - This board reviews applications by people who were charged with a criminal offence when they were under the age of 18 and who are currently in custody. Applicants can ask the Custody Review Board to decide, among other things, whether they can be transferred to another location, or whether they can be temporarily released.

3. The Landlord and Tenant Board - This tribunal receives applications regarding disputes between landlords and tenants.

4. The Ontario Special Education Tribunal – English  - Parents/guardians with children who have particular learning needs can appeal a decision of their child’s English school board (public or catholic) to this tribunal. An adult student with learning needs can also make this appeal.

5. The Ontario Special Education Tribunal – French - Just as above, the parents/guardians of children with particular learning needs can appeal a decision of their child’s French school board (public or catholic).

6. The Social Benefits Tribunal - People receiving social assistance under the Ontario Works Act or the Ontario Disability Support Program Act can, among other things, appeal a decision to this tribunal regarding their eligibility and the amount of assistance they receive.

7. The Human Rights Tribunal - This tribunal reviews complaints of harassment and/or discrimination based on prohibited grounds in five social areas. More details on this will be provided in the next section.

There used to be an 8th tribunal called the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which reviewed applications for financial compensation for victims of violent crimes (or for the family members of a deceased victim). However, this board stopped receiving applications in fall 2019 when the Ontario government began the process of dissolving this tribunal. To receive similar financial assistance for victims, individuals must now apply to the Victim Quick Response Program +.

The Human Rights Code and the Tribunal

As briefly mentioned earlier, the Ontario Human Rights Code provides protection on certain grounds, including, but not limited, to sex, family status, and disability. According to the Human Rights Commission, the disabilities protected by the Code include physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, and addiction, to name a few. Given that Statistics Canada reported in 2018 that 22.3% of Canadians aged 15 years and above have a disability (see the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability), it is no surprise that a large percentage of all complaints before the Human Rights Tribunal concern discrimination based on disability.

According to the Code, individuals are protected against discrimination and harassment based on grounds, like disability, in five social areas: goods, services and facilities; housing; contracts; employment; and membership in unions, trade or professional associations. For example, the Code allows you to make a complaint if you are discriminated against in a workplace context on the basis of disability.

If you wish to file a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, you have a few options: 

1. You can complete the application and file the complaint yourself. 

2. You can seek help from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, which provides free legal assistance to people who wish to file a human rights complaint. For those with disabilities requiring an accommodation, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre can be reached by phone at 1-866-625-5179 (toll free), 1-866-612-8627 (TTY toll free) or by email at accommodation@hrlsc.on.ca.

3. You may be able to receive assistance from a community legal clinic in your area.  

4. You can seek help from a legal professional, such as a lawyer or a paralegal.

To learn more about Ontario’s human rights system, the Human Rights Commission provides a quick video learning module. For more information about the Ontario Human Rights Commission, you may visit http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en

The Human Rights Tribunal also provides its own general information about the application and hearing process of a complaint. The Human Rights Legal Support Centre also provides a detailed guide.

For more information about Social Justice Tribunals Ontario, you may visit http://www.sjto.gov.on.ca/en/