Monday, October 31, 2011

Supreme Court of Canada Addresses Costs at Canadian Human Rights Tribunal

I recently made a post addressing some of the challenges of the human rights system.  One of the observations I made is that, with many legitimate claims resulting in entitlements in the 4-digit range, forcing complainants to go to Court for their entitlements would be tragic because of the legal costs of doing so.

A recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, in Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Attorney General) illustrates that the same tragedy can result at administrative tribunals where complainants are provided with inadequate systemic assistance and required to retain their own lawyers:  In 2003, the Canadian Human Rights Commission decided to restrict the advocacy assistance it provided to complainants.  As a consequence, it seems, Donna Mowat was required to incur her own legal fees in pursuing her complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal following sexual harassment and release from her employment with the Canadian Forces.

Following a six-week hearing in 2005, the Tribunal found that she had been sexually harassed and the CF's response had not been adequate, but dismissed the rest of her complaint.  Ms. Mowat was awarded $4000.  She asked for costs, noting that her legal fees were nearly $200,000.  (A six week hearing is exceptional, and speaks to the complexity of the matters in issue, and legal fees of that order do not seem unusual for such a protracted hearing, though the Tribunal was critical of the "lack of precision" in identifying the key issues, which is surprising for a represented litigant.)  Noting the concern that, without a costs order, her victory would be "pyrrhic", the Tribunal looked to its broad jurisdiction to compensate a victim and make her whole, and awarded $47,000 in costs.  The Supreme Court of Canada eventually (recently) concluded that the Tribunal had been wrong to interpret its powers thus, and found that the Canadian Human Rights Act did not empower the Tribunal to award costs:  Costs, in law, are treated differently from compensatory damages, and so the Tribunal's compensatory powers did not include the power to award costs.

While there's a certain controversy and imbalance to Ontario's new approach, having free legal assistance available to applicants, there is a good argument to be made that it is preferable to this alternative, where a human rights remedy is going to usually cost more to obtain than it is worth.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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