Delays and an ongoing backlog of cases continue at Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). Everyone – whether you’re a tenant, landlord, or their representative – has voiced their growing frustration with how the tribunal currently operates. These frustrations prompted an announcement of $4 million in additional funding from the province for the LTB over the next 3 years. But money alone will not overcome the barriers low-income tenants experience with digital hearings.
When the LTB decided to permanently switch from in-person hearings to digital hearings in the middle of the pandemic, the public was told the digital process would be more efficient – and that going digital would effectively meet the needs of tenants and landlords while improving their access to justice.
Going digital has been a failure.
Two years into this digital experiment, it is clear the opposite is true: not only have digital hearings at the LTB reduced access to justice for Ontarians and deepened a digital divide, new data demonstrates going digital is more inefficient than in-person.
In the fall of 2021, the number of total cases processed by the LTB decreased by 28%, when compared to the same time period of in-person hearings in 2019. Further, the LTB aims to schedule a hearing within 25 business days of an application being filed. Yet their own annual reports show that the time it takes from the point an application is filed to when a hearing is scheduled has grown dramatically each year.
Let’s break that down. In 2017/18, they managed to meet their target for 54% of the applications they received. That percentage has fallen every single year since; in 2018/19 they did so for only 34% of applications; in 2019/20 they managed it 15% of the time; and in 2020/21, a mere 1% of applications were scheduled for hearing within their goal of 25 days.
Going digital has added fuel to the fire on existing structural problems.
There were severe, structural problems at the LTB prior to going digital permanently. Over the last few years, many newly hired adjudicators work only part-time at the LTB and are often cross-appointed to other tribunals. In 2017/18, the LTB had 55 full-time Adjudicators with only 11 part-time. As of March 2022, the LTB has only 39 full-time adjudicators and 49 part-time, which dilutes their expertise and reduces the quality of decision-making.
Another key issue is that hearing blocks are now scheduled by application type and no longer heard regionally. Regional scheduling minimized delays and encouraged adjudicators to be familiar with regional supports available to tenants that could prevent their eviction. Regional scheduling also allowed Tenant Duty Counsel and legal clinics to better serve tenants seeking legal advice before their hearing.
Scheduling by application type instead poses three problems. First, adjudicators no longer hear a range of application types and are only proficient in adjudicating a narrow subset of applications. Second, the local context is completely lost in the process. Lastly, tenant matters that might be relevant to their case are no longer being heard at the same hearing. Instead, hearings related to the same tenancy are sometimes scheduled a year apart. Barring tenants from raising relevant issues at their landlord-initiated hearing denies them the opportunity to raise a full defense or seek remedies that may help them save their homes.
What does this mean for access to justice?
Not only has going digital slowed down cases at the LTB, it has resulted in poorer outcomes and access to justice for tenants. The move to digital hearings occurs at a time where affordable housing is already scarce and evictions are on the rise. If evicted, tenants experience real hardships trying to find a new home in their community.
The Landlord and Tenant Board is broken. Throwing money at it to hire more adjudicators will not make it better. There are a number of interventions that should be made instead, including:
- Immediately resume in-person hearings equally with remote hearing formats, especially for tenants who require accommodations, for complex cases with lots of evidence, or where the credibility of parties/witnesses is at issue.
- Revert to scheduling applications on a regional basis.
- Provide more supports to tenants who lack the technology to effectively participate, including better training for Adjudicators so they are responsive to the barriers tenants face.
- Create channels for tenants to contact the LTB and receive assistance, such as a fully staffed hotline for people who have technical difficulties in a current hearing to get immediate help, and providing in-person counter service to accept evidence and support for self-represented parties.
- Hire a team of former experienced Adjudicators to tackle the backlog of cases.
These kinds of structural improvements must not come at the expense of existing tenant protections, which are already inadequate. The LTB will have to better balance the needs of both tenants and landlords to avoid being perceived as an eviction machine. Therefore, the LTB has a responsibility to address how going digital is inefficient and harmful to tenants.
Ontario has become a province where it is easier for people to get Medical Assistance in Dying than find safe, secure, and affordable housing. This is an abject failure. Keeping people affordably housed should be a top priority for everybody. Ending the digital only experiment at the Landlord and Tenant Board is one place to start.