Everyone has an intuitive sense of what their human rights are, but it’s often difficult to determine if one’s human rights have been interfered with in a way that would be punishable or compensable. When an incident occurs, people often do not have the information they need to determine what they can or should do. This article is intended as a general introduction to the human rights complaint process in British Columbia.
The BC Human Rights Code protects human rights in British Columbia and provides a structure for human rights complaints to be heard and resolved. If your case does not fall within the jurisdiction of the BC Human Rights Code, it may fall under the jurisdiction of the human rights code of another province or the federal human rights code. In order to be successful in making a human rights complaint to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, you must have a reasonable basis for allegations that a) someone treated you differently from others because of your race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age, and b) that the differential treatment occurred in a context where the Human Rights Code prohibits it from occurring – for example, in employment, provision of services or accommodation, publications, or membership in a trade union or similar organization.
If you believe you have a human rights complaint, it is vital that you file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal within six months of the incident you are complaining of, or within six months of the last incident, if you are alleging a pattern of multiple similar incidents. The Human Rights Tribunal screens all of the complaints it receives to determine if, on a first reading of the complaint, it satisfies the criteria of alleging differential treatment in a specific context and is brought in time. If your complaint does not meet those criteria, the Tribunal may not allow your complaint to proceed.
If your complaint is accepted, the Tribunal may schedule an Early Settlement Meeting if all of the people involved agree to attend. At an Early Settlement Meeting, all of the people involved will attend a meeting (with their advisors or legal counsel if they choose), and with the help of a mediator, will exchange viewpoints and try to achieve a resolution of the complaint. Such a resolution may include an apology, letters of reference, the creation of a code of conduct or accommodation policy to prevent future incidents, and/or payment of monetary compensation.
If an Early Settlement Meeting does not occur or is not successful in resolving the complaint, the person against whom the complaint is made must make a response to the complaint. The people involved must also exchange copies of any documents that may be relevant to the complaint, and may be required to state in more detail what remedies and results they want from the Tribunal. The Tribunal will set a hearing date for the parties to attend and present their evidence and arguments in front of a Tribunal member. A typical Tribunal member is an experienced lawyer acting in a adjudicative role who is trained to conduct hearings and rule on possible violations of the Human Rights Code.
If a complaint is successful, the Tribunal may award compensation in several different areas. First, the Tribunal may award compensation for “injury to dignity”, a term that encompasses a person’s hurt, humiliation, shock, and pain stemming from the discriminatory conduct. Second, the Tribunal may award compensation for any damages separate from injury to dignity stemming from the discriminatory conduct, possibly including damages for loss of income or the cost of finding alternate accommodations, and the like. Third, the Tribunal may award compensation for a person’s expenses in taking a matter to a hearing, including copying and travel expenses. Fourth, the Tribunal may, in limited circumstances, award a person partial compensation for legal fees.
Embarking on a human rights complaint is a massive undertaking and a complaint may take months or years to resolve. Before you make a complaint, it is prudent to seek the assistance of a lawyer to advise you on the process and assess your complaint so that you can make an informed decision and give yourself a better chance of success.