Administrative law – Human Rights complaints – Discrimination – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Statutory Benefits Tribunal – Statutory powers – Judicial review – Jurisdiction of tribunal to hear a complaint under the Human Rights Code – Compliance with legislation
Tranchemontagne v. Ontario (Director, Disability Support Program),  S.C.J. No. 14, Supreme Court of Canada, April 21, 2006, McLachlin C.J. and Bastarache, Binnie, LeBel, Deschamps, Fish and Abella JJ.
In November 1998 and July 1999, the Appellants T and W applied to the Director of the Ontario Disability Support Program for support pursuant to the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, S.O. 1997, c.25. The Director determined that the Appellants were not entitled to benefits under the ODSPA regime. The Appellants requested an internal review of the Director’s decision. Rejected at this stage, the Appellants then appealed to the Social Benefits Tribunal.
The SBT found that the Appellants suffered from alcoholism, which was a disabling condition for both of them. However, section 5(2) of the ODSPA provided, amongst other things, that a person is not eligible for income support if the person is dependent on or addicted to alcohol. The Appellants argued that section 5(2) was inapplicable by virtue of the Ontario Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19. By purporting to refuse them support on the basis of their alcoholism, which the Appellants asserted was a disability within the meaning of the Code, the Appellants argued that section 5(2) of the ODSPA constituted discrimination and was therefore inapplicable because of the primacy of the Code over other legislation.
The SBT, however, held that it did not have the jurisdiction to consider the applicability of section 5(2) of the ODSPA pursuant to the Code. At issue on the appeal was whether this decision was in error.
The Court noted that the Code was fundamental law. The Ontario legislature had contemplated that this fundamental law could be applied by other administrative bodies and had amended the Code accordingly. The laudatory goals of the Code were not well served by reading in limitations to its application. It was settled law that statutory tribunals empowered to decide questions of law were presumed to have the power to look beyond their enabling statutes in order to apply the whole law properly to a matter in front of them. By applying this principle to the present appeal, it was clear that the SBT had the jurisdiction to consider the Code in determining whether the Appellants were eligible for support pursuant to the ODSPA. The SBT had a responsibility of applying the Code in order to render a decision that reflected the whole law of the Province.
The Court noted a distinction between precluding a statutory tribunal from invalidating legislation enacted by the legislature that created it and applying legislation enacted by that legislature in order to resolve apparent conflicts between statutes. In this case, consistent with the human rights regime as crafted, the legislature had afforded the Code the possibility of broad application even while denying the SBT the authority to determine constitutional issues. The SBT therefore had jurisdiction to consider the Code.
The SBT had not been granted the authority to decline jurisdiction and therefore it could not avoid considering the Code issues in the Appellants’ appeals. The SBT was a highly appropriate forum in which to argue the applicability of section 5(2) of the ODSPA under the Code. Encouraging administrative tribunals to exercise their jurisdiction to decide human rights issues fulfils a laudable goal of bringing justice closer to the people. In addition, the legislature did not grant the SBT the power to defer to another forum when it was properly seized of an issue. Absent such authority, the SBT could not decline to deal with the Code issue on the basis that a more appropriate forum existed.
In the result, the appeal was allowed and the matter was remitted to the SBT so that it could rule on the applicability of section 5(2) of the ODSPA.
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