I am currently assisting several clients who have brought claims to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) related to sexual harassment that they experienced in their workplaces. As devastating as these experiences were, several clients have expressed to me that their experiences of dealing with the delays and lack of communication from HRTO have been even more devastating and have left them feeling completely disillusioned with our justice system.
One of these clients, Jane (name has been changed to protect the client's identity), experienced sexual harassment for several years from her supervisor and from a contractor who worked for the employer. She expressed to both parties that she was feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at work as a result of their inappropriate sexual comments towards her and towards other women and this had no effect. She escalated her complaint to the Board of Directors only to be pushed out of her job. Meanwhile, her marriage fell apart for reasons directly related to her employment situation and she ended up homeless and financially destitute. Like many victims of sexual harassment, Jane had experienced abuse as a child and domestic violence and suffers from PTSD. Her symptoms make it very difficult for her to deal with situations involving conflict, particularly with people who are in positions of authority.
Despite these difficulties and the profoundly negative psychological impact of losing a job that she loved, Jane found the courage to reach out to The Legal Clinic for assistance in bringing a human rights complaint against the sexual harassers and her employer. Jane's claim was received by the Tribunal on October 21, 2021. However, her Application was not served on the Respondents by HRTO until May 18th, 2022, 7 months after it was filed. From there it took until August 15th for the Responses to be filed and the Applicant has since filed her replies. It has therefore been almost a year from the time she filed her Application until the pleadings were completed. By way of comparison, in Superior Court or Small Claims Court pleadings can be closed within 31 days.
Jane expressed to me that the process of going through the human rights complaint, and in particular the delays and lack of communication from HRTO has been even more difficult for her emotionally than the sexual harassment and job loss she suffered. I have heard this from several other clients who have made applications to HRTO relating to sexual harassment. Some of my clients have waited almost a year just to have their applications served on the Respondents. Others have been waiting over 6 months to find out when mediation would take place, if at all. Those who have been to mediation have been told by mediators that there is a 2-3 year wait for a hearing date if the mediation is unsuccessful. The waiting and not knowing what to expect have led some to almost give up hope, not just on the HRTO, but on life itself.
From my perspective as a representative of these victims, the most frustrating aspect of this situation is that it is impossible to get a clear answer from HRTO about the status of a file so that I can properly inform my client. When I have tried calling HRTO for a file update I have been told by the person answering the phone that the file is "under review". The other day I asked for a status update for a client who has been waiting to hear about mediation for 7 months by email only to be told:
Dear Ms. Langan,
This is in response to your correspondence below.
Please be assured that the above-noted application is moving through the Tribunal’s process. We will contact you as soon as possible with instructions for the next steps in this application.
We thank you for your patience.
This type of delay and poor communication is not the norm. Other Tribunals that I deal with daily in the same sector are very responsive to inquiries, often responding the same day with useful information. Almost all the Tribunals strive to deal with a matter from start to finish, no matter how complex, in under a year. We should be able to expect the same efficiency from HRTO. After all, the purpose of creating Administrative Tribunals was to offer a quicker and more accessible option to litigants who are often unrepresented.
The type of responses I have received from the HRTO to my file status inquiries is the opposite of helpful and leaves those dealing with the Tribunal with a sense of hopelessness. For my clients it feels as if there is no clear end, or even next step, to work towards. This feeling of powerlessness and anxiety about what is going to happen next is very similar to the experience of being sexually harassed in your workplace and/or abused as a child by people who are supposed to be there to keep you safe and guide you.
I have been told by one of the managers at HRTO that steps are being taken to review and revise the Tribunal's process to make it more streamlined and efficient. Also, some of the delays have been caused by a lack of qualified tribunal members as the government chose not to fill many of the vacant positions until just recently. Now that more adjudicators have been hired, they need to be trained and this takes time. Regardless of the reasons for these unacceptably long delays, the Tribunal needs to improve the manner and efficiency with which they interface with the public and should, at the very least, be providing litigants with timelines to reach the next step in their matter so that they can plan accordingly and have some sense of progression.
If you and/or your clients are experiencing similar frustrations about delays and poor communication by HRTO you can reach out to the following sources for assistance:
Tribunals Ontario: Complaints TO-TDO.Feedback@ontario.ca
Provincial Ombudsperson: https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/have-a-complaint/make-a-complaint/complaint-form-general
Your local MPP: https://www.ola.org/en/members/current/contact-information
HRTO is there to fill a very important role in our Justice system so we cannot simply sit back and accept that the current state of affairs is normal. If enough people make complaints and bring this issue to the attention of others, the Provincial Government will put pressure on the Tribunal to improve. Please take the time to share this post as widely as you can on your social media accounts.