Reasonable Doubt: B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hears discrimination complaints

Kevin Yee walks you through the BC Human Rights Code and explains how we are all protected from discrimination.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision called Moore v. British Columbia (Education), where it ruled that the North Vancouver school district violated human rights law by eliminating a student program for learning disabilities. This dispute traced back to the 1990s when the school district was struggling with budget cuts. At that time, a student named Moore was suffering from severe dyslexia and had to turn to private school to get the assistance he needed. His father filed a human rights complaint on Moore’s behalf. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found the school district’s actions discriminatory. They brought the case before the B.C. Supreme Court, where it set aside the tribunal’s ruling. Moore brought this decision to the B.C. Court of Appeal but was unsuccessful. He eventually took this case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

This case provides a helpful illustration of how individuals can assert their human rights. The B.C. Human Rights Code strives to address inequality and prejudices in our society. It does so by prohibiting specific forms of discrimination and providing a forum to hear complaints. The code lists grounds of protection from discrimination based on sex (gender), ethnicity, religion, age, physical or mental abilities, and sexual orientation. The code prohibits discriminatory acts in several contexts such as employment, tenancy, and the provision of services. Individuals who are discriminated against can file a complaint at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

As Joseph Fearon mentioned in his last article, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal is one of several administrative tribunals that decide on specific types of disputes. Similar to court, the two sides of a dispute come together and present their case to an impartial decision-maker. Rather than a judge, human rights cases are heard by government-appointed tribunal “members”. The procedure is more informal than court and is more accessible to self-represented parties.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has its own rules of procedure. It is able to provide remedies such as ordering discriminatory acts to stop and ordering anything that is unfairly denied—such as services or a job—to be provided. It can also award compensation for injury to dignity and self-respect.

A common human rights complaint at the B.C. Human Right Tribunal is “discrimination in accommodation, service and facility”. The B.C. Human Rights Code specifically prohibits discriminating or denying someone an accommodation, service, or facility that is open to the public if: (a) the discrimination or denial is due to that person’s sex, religion, or any of the other named grounds of protection; and (b) there is no reasonable justification. Deciding on whether a justification is “reasonable” often means balancing opposing interests. For example, many businesses have age restrictions on their premises. Casinos and bars come to mind. A minor turned away from these businesses may be able to say he or she was denied service based on age, but would be hard-pressed to convince a tribunal that there was no reasonable justification.

In the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Moore (cited above), the court had to decide whether the school district breached the B.C. Human Rights Code. This required answering two questions: whether the district discriminated against Moore and if so, whether it was justified. For the first question, the court ruled that the district’s decision to cut the program was discrimination. This was because Moore was denied a service (i.e. education) by reason of his mental abilities. For the second question, the court also found insufficient justification. Although the school district was coping with budget cuts, it did not consider alternative accommodations for the students who needed the program. As a result, the court ordered the school district to pay the student’s private school tuition and $10,000 for injury to dignity.

For further information on this topic, good places to start are the B.C. Human Rights Code and the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal’s website. The tribunal’s website is particularly useful in providing forms and explaining rules of procedure. If you believe your rights have been violated, you will have to act quickly—the deadline for filing a complaint is six months from the date of the human rights violation.

A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.