While the government has called for an end to submissions on proposed changes to Ontario''s Human Rights Code under bill 107, opinions in the legal community remain divided about the legislation.
Bill 107's changes to Ontario's human rights laws were announced earlier this year and would see individual complaints being filed directly with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, rather than through the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The commission would focus on a more public education and advocacy role but would also have a right to intervene in matters before the tribunal.
The government also announced amendments to the bill earlier this month, entrenching a new Human Rights Legal Support Centre, eliminating the tribunal's ability to charge fees, and restricting the tribunal's ability to dismiss applications without a hearing. According to the proposed amendments, the commission will also have some public inquiry powers.
The bill has passed second reading and is currently before the standing committee on justice policy. Submissions on the bill were scheduled to continue through December but last Tuesday the Liberal government used its majority in the provincial legislature to invoke closure on the debate.
"We believe that we need to
. . . have a lengthy debate but not an indefinite debate,'' Attorney General Michael Bryant told reporters.
Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission responded to the decision to cut the debate short saying, "what should have been a broad, consensus-building exercise in the best traditions of promoting human rights, was undertaken in a way which, instead, caused division within the communities concerned."
In a statement, Hall said: "This should be a time to encourage discussion, for consultation and for healing of divisions. All sides share the goal of a stronger, more effective human rights system for Ontarians and care passionately about human rights. It is crucial in this context to seek common ground, for the sake of the people we both serve."
She said the proposed amendments need fine tuning and "to allay fears within the community by making clear the transition from the old system to the new. By bringing an abrupt halt to the proceedings that opportunity is lost; I fear the existing divisions will become more polarized and bitter."
In terms of the legislation, David Lepofsky, a Crown lawyer and advocate for disability rights told a community forum on bill 107 at the University of Toronto law school that the bill is fundamentally flawed and leaves the commission as a shell of its former self.
"We agree that the human rights system is broken, seriously flawed and needs to be fixed," said Lepofsky.
He told the forum the bill proposes to repeal the statutory right to have human rights complaints publicly investigated by a law enforcement agency and publicly prosecuted.
Lepofsky added that at a recent technical briefing, the government did not give any assurances that advice given at the new Human Rights Legal Support Centre would be from lawyers. He added that the government must honour its promise for free independent legal counsel for each complainant.
However, Kathy Laird, executive director of Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), told the forum that 55 community legal clinics support the government's initiative.
"The communities that we serve are to a large degree left out of the current process," she said, adding that bill 107 would allow them to get before an adjudicator and tell their stories.
According to Laird, the legal clinics are in favour of the proposed elimination of application fees as well as the entrenchment of a legal services centre, and bill 107 is consistent with the UN recommendations to Canada over many years.
Lepofsky added that it is not a matter of bill 107 proponents who want "speedy justice" and bill 107 opponents who want delay, but rather clients who want results.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, in the year ending March 31, it received 2,399 new complaints, 2,117 cases were completed at the commission and 143 were sent to the tribunal. There was a backlog of 581 cases during this period.
The Ontario Bar Association has also given its general support to the bill. However, in its submission to the standing committee on justice policy, the OBA did put forward a number of changes, including the fact that it should be specific with regard to who is allowed to provide legal services in relation to a proceeding before the tribunal.
"Currently, the government has announced a new Human Rights Support Centre but has failed to identify who will provide the information, support, advice, assistance and legal representation which will apparently be available through the centre," said the OBA submission.
"Similarly, it is not clear whether or how the proposed Human Rights Support Centre will be integrated or work with existing legal services providers, including Legal Aid Ontario, community legal clinics, lawyers who accept legal aid certificates, lawyers employed by the government and other providers." Another issue raised has been funding, with the OBA urging the government to increase funding to a greater extent than has been proposed.
"Quite simply, without sufficient funding - for the commission to carry out its public interest functions, for the tribunal to adjudicate cases in a timely way, and for litigants to have access to legal support - the new system will suffer from many of the problems of the previous one," according to the submission.