Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Human Rights Commission – Human Rights complaints – Duty to accommodate – Universities – Judicial review – Jurisdiction – Standard of review – Correctness – Reasonableness simpliciter
University of Saskatchewan v. Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission,  S.J. No. 467, 2014 SKQB 248, Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, August 7, 2014, R.W. Danyliuk J.
Mr. Hebron was a student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (the “College”). Mr. Hebron advised the College that he had a learning disability and that he might need some accommodation. In his final year of study, problems had arisen with his clinical work and he was required to discontinue as a result of failing to achieve and maintain the requisite academic standard. Mr. Hebron took a number of steps to appeal, including an appeal to the University Council’s Appeal Board, which is the regular internal university appeal process. He alleged various acts of discrimination against him, including violations of the University Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy and The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code (the “Human Rights Code”). The substance of the complaint was that he had not been accommodated by the College. Around the same time, Mr. Hebron also filed a human rights complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”), again alleging discrimination substantially on the same basis. The University’s Appeal Board held a hearing and subsequently issued a written decision, denying Mr. Hebron’s appeal.
A complaint had been made to the Commission by the Respondent Mr. Hebron, and the Chief Commissioner had been asked to summarily dismiss the complaint, on the basis of the University’s preliminary objection. The Chief Commissioner refused to summarily dismiss the complaint.
The Applicants sought to have that decision quashed, and sought an order to prohibit the Commission from proceeding with Mr. Hebron’s complaint. The Applicants argued that the Commissioner’s decision was both unreasonable, for reasons of public policy, and incorrect, for reasons of jurisdiction. Mr. Hebron’s position was that the Commissioner’s decision was both reasonable and correct, and he wanted his complaint to proceed. The issues on the application to the Court of the Queen’s Bench (the “Court”) were:
- What is the appropriate standard of review in this case?
- Did the Chief Commissioner err in his determination of jurisdiction?
- Did the Chief Commissioner err in his determination that the issues before the University Appeal Board and the Human Rights Commission were not substantially similar?
- What relief should be granted, if any?
To the first question, the Court held that the standard of correctness applied to the court’s review of part of the Chief Commissioner’s decision, and the standard of reasonableness applied to the balance. It was the Court’s view that there was a true question of jurisdiction before the Chief Commissioner, which attracted the correctness standard. The jurisdictional issue was whether there was concurrent jurisdiction between the University and the Commission on the issue of accommodating Mr. Hebron. The Chief Commissioner determined that there was no concurrent jurisdiction, and therefore the Commission had jurisdiction to consider Mr. Hebron’s complaint. The Court said that as this is a legal issue, one going to the very jurisdiction of the Commission to entertain Mr. Hebron’s complaint, the issue attracts the correctness standard.
In the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Figliola, 2011 SCC 52 [Figliola], Justice Abbella set out the three factors to be considered when determining whether to dismiss a complaint under British Columbia’s equivalent Human Rights legislation. The first was whether concurrent jurisdiction existed, the second was whether the issue previously decided is essentially the same issue as that before the Human Rights Commission, and the third was whether natural justice was afforded to the parties. This third factor was not at issue in this case.
To the second question, and referring to the first factor in the decision in Figliola, the Court held that the Chief Commissioner made an error in law, and that the correctness standard was breached. The Court found that the Chief Commissioner erred in determining there was no concurrent jurisdiction to deal with human rights matters. Instead, the Court stated that the University Council Appeal Board did have the jurisdiction to consider and deal with matters of general law including issues arising from putative breaches of the Human Rights Code and that if Mr. Hebron was dissatisfied with their decision; it was open to him to seek judicial review of the same.
In answering the third question, and the second factor in Figliola, the Court held that the Chief Commissioner erred in finding that the two issues were not substantially similar and that his decision did not meet the reasonableness standard. While the Court held that the Chief Commissioner’s decision was transparent and intelligible, they could not find that it was justifiable or that it falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes that are defensible in respect of the facts and the law.
In finding that the Chief Commissioner erred in determining that there was no concurrent jurisdiction and that the two issues were not substantially the same, the Court quashed the Chief Commissioner’s decision. The Court further prohibited the Commission from taking any further proceedings with respect to Mr. Hebron’s current complaint and awarded the Applicants costs for this application.
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