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Tight deadlines can handcuff tribunals

By Jeffrey R. Smith (

Timeliness is not often associated with the legal process.

Court backlogs, commission investigations and endless motions make it seem like even minor procedures last an eternity. Authorities often try to find ways to lessen the time it takes for a suit or complaint to be heard so the parties involved don’t have to wait months or even years for a resolution. In Ontario, both the court system and the human rights regime have been revamped in an attempt to speed up the process of hearing a case and lighten the backlog.

However, someone filing a lawsuit or complaint can still expect to be mired in the process for quite a while. In British Columbia, a woman who complained of sexual harassment from her boss recently had her case resolved by the province’s human rights tribunal. She had wanted the complaint to be handled as quickly as possible so she could get on with her life. She got what she wanted — a verdict in her favour — but the ruling came more than three years after she filed the complaint.

In Alberta, the situation is similar for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commisioner (OIPC) as it makes its way through piles of privacy complaints. But the province’s courts have put extra pressure on the OIPC to hear its cases in a timely manner. There is a statutory deadline of 90 days, but the OIPC is allowed to extend it with proper notice to the parties involved, which it often does.

However, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, backed up by the Alberta Court of Appeal in a case where the OIPC took more than 17 months to rule on a privacy complaint, found timeliness was of the utmost importance in hearing complaints and the OIPC could only extend the deadline if it had a good reason. If it can’t make the deadline and didn’t have a good reason for an extension, the OIPC risked losing jurisdiction over the case, the courts said.

Alberta privacy commissioner Frank Work bemoaned the decision, saying his office simply didn’t have the resources to meet the statutory deadlines and would likely have to discontinue a large number of complaints that couldn’t be handled in 90 days. Work also warned of the consequences for other tribunals across Canada that were bound by specific timelines.

Timeliness is desirable in any kind of legal action, but how far should we go to enforce it? It’s unlikely courts will be faced with any binding deadlines, so are tribunals less important? Is it better to wait a long time for a resolution or to have no resolution whatsoever? In the Alberta circumstances, it might seem ridiculous to have a privacy complaint languish in the system for a year-and-a-half or two years, but is it better to tie the hands or dismiss the privacy authority if it takes too long?

What do you think? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law. For more information, visit

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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