Supreme Court of Canada denies authority of human rights tribunal to award costs

Tribunal considered legal costs part of expenses legislation allows it to compensate for but it overstepped its authority: Court

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has the power to order financial compensation to victims of discrimination for suffering and lost wages, but it does not have the authority to make an offender pay for a complainant’s legal costs, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The tribunal awarded $4,000 for “suffering in respect of feelings and self-respect” to a female traffic technician who accused the Canadian Forces of discriminating against her because of her sex. Over a 14-year career, she had filed several complaints against various employees of the Canadian Forces. Though one investigation found a co-worker harassed her, she filed a human rights complaint three years after she left the Forces.

After the award, the technician applied for an award to cover her legal costs, which were more than $196,000. The tribunal interpreted a provision in the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) that allowed it to award compensation for “expenses incurred by the victim as a result of the discriminatory practice” as including legal costs. As a result, the tribunal awarded the technician $47,000 in partial satisfaction based on the amount of evidence in her favour.

The Attorney General of Canada appealed the costs award and the Federal Court of Appeal found the tribunal had no authority to make a costs award, since it did not involve its “human rights expertise.” This made the tribunal’s decision incorrect and unreasonable, depending on the standard of review used.

The technician appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada but Canada’s highest court unanimously dismissed the appeal.

“In our view, the text, context and purpose of the legislation clearly show that there is no authority in the tribunal to award legal costs and that there is no other reasonable interpretation of the relevant provisions. Faced with a difficult point of statutory interpretation and conflicting judicial authority, the tribunal adopted a dictionary meaning of ‘expenses’ and articulated what it considered to be a beneficial policy outcome rather than engage in an interpretative process taking account of the text, context and purpose of the provisions in issue,” said the Supreme Court.

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