Supreme Court of Canada Ruling Prohibits Forum Shopping

The Supreme Court of Canada has clarified the test for determining whether a matter has been “appropriately dealt with” in another proceeding: the Court has confirmed that human rights tribunals cannot review human rights decisions of other administrative decision makers.

In British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Figliola, three injured employees had received compensation payments in accordance with the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board’s Chronic Pain Policy. On appeal to the Review Division, the employees argued that the policy, which provided for a fixed award for chronic pain, was unreasonable, unconstitutional, and discriminatory contrary to British Columbia’s Human Rights Code.

The relevant legislation was amended, and removed the Board’s ability to apply the Code. As such, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal no longer had the jurisdiction to hear an appeal of the Review Officer’s decision. Rather than seeking to judicially review the Review Officer’s decision, the employees filed complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal, raising the same issues.

The Board brought a motion to dismiss the human rights complaints, and argued that the Human Rights Tribunal had no jurisdiction. The case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the Court had to determine whether the Human Rights Tribunal had the jurisdiction to re-hear a complaint that had already been dealt with by another tribunal of competent jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court’s decision focused on subsection 27(1)(f) of the Code, which provides that all or part of a complaint can be dismissed without a hearing where the substance of the complaint has been “appropriately dealt with” in another proceeding.

The Court set out the following test for the application of subsection 27(1)(f):

1. is there concurrent jurisdiction to decide human rights issues;

2. is the previously decided legal issue essentially the same as what is being complained of to the Tribunal; and

3. have the complainants had the opportunity to know the case to be met and the opportunity to meet it, regardless of how similar the process was to the one the Tribunal uses?

The Court further clarified that the legislation does not grant the Human Rights Tribunal the power to judicially review another tribunal’s decision; rather, there is to be “territorial respect” between adjudicative bodies, such that they treat each other’s decisions as final. Had the employees wanted to judicially review the Board’s decision, that option was available to them through the courts.

In this case, the Court found that the Tribunal and the Board both had concurrent jurisdiction over the subject matter and, as such, the complaints constituted a duplication of the Board’s proceedings. The Board had already decided the issues, and the complainants were found to have fully participated in the proceedings. Thus, the Tribunal’s decision to proceed with the complaints was found to be patently unreasonable. On that basis, the Court set aside the Tribunal’s decision and dismissed the complaints.

The Court’s decision reiterates the importance of finality, and provides a clear statement that the type of “forum shopping” that occurred in this case is inappropriate. Although this decision is based on British Columbia’s Human Rights Code, very similar language appears in Ontario’s Human Rights Code. Accordingly, this decision provides helpful commentary on proper interpretation of human rights legislation in Ontario.

Further, although the particular facts in this case were limited to the interpretation of human rights legislation, this decision is likely to have far broader application, especially given the Court’s thorough analysis of the principle that “collateral attacks” on final decisions are to be avoided. Thus, it is likely that this decision of the Supreme Court will be raised in the context of grievance arbitrations, occupational health and safety matters, and in many other forums where the issue of concurrent, or overlapping, jurisdiction arises.