Delays in how the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission handles complaints are eroding public confidence and the system needs to be repaired, according to the province's highest court.
A written judgment issued Friday by the P.E.I. Court of Appeal deals with a human rights case that took four years to resolve.
The case itself wasn't unique — the man's complaint of discrimination was eventually found to be without merit — but what the high court called "unexplained" and lengthy delays at the human rights commission spurred it to issue a carefully worded statement as part of the ruling.
"In view of the high order of human rights ... this situation is concerning," Justice David Jenkins wrote in the ruling, with Justices Michele Murphy and John Mitchell concurring. "As this may be a recurring issue, it should be acknowledged and addressed appropriately ... Delay erodes public confidence."
The man's human rights complaint, against what he alleged to be an unfair hiring practice by the P.E.I. Teachers Federation, began in June of 2017. It wasn't resolved by the Human Rights Commission until June of 2021.
"Allowing some credit for COVID-induced delay from March 2020 onward, the remaining elapsed time ... remains unexplained," wrote the Court of Appeal.
This was not the first time P.E.I.'s highest court weighed in on long delays involving the commission. Another case launched in 2017, involving a school bus driver and the Eastern District School Board, also took four years to conclude.
Many older cases still in progress
The P.E.I. Human Rights Commission says it is working to reduce its multi-year backlog.
Executive director Brenda Picard told CBC News most of the bottleneck occurs at the investigative phase — when the commission's team of lawyers digs into the facts of a case.
On April 1, 2021, the commission had 49 files open that had originated between the years of 2012 and 2018.
"Last fiscal year we were able to deal with half of that," she said.
Of the 24 remaining open files in the backlog, Picard said 16 had been moved forward in some way in the first four months of 2022. She also said 43 cases were opened last year, with 47 per cent of those resolved during 2021.
"Although people hear about our backlog and question whether they can make use of the commission, the fact that we were able to conclude half of our new cases within the same fiscal year — we hope — will demonstrate that the commission remains a valuable resource to the community."
The commission closed 63 cases last year, compared to 48 the year before.
Budget has been boosted
An additional $85,000 was added to the commission's $600,000 allocation in this year's provincial budget. The commission's staff of six now includes three lawyers who work full time.
As for how long it will be before the entire backlog has been cleared, Picard said: "We do not know how long it will take but are trying to move things as quickly as we can. The message from the court may be that we need to request and receive even more resources to deal with the backlog even more quickly."
Picard said that when the backlog has been dealt with, "We hope a case would be able to be resolved from complaint to panel within 12 months."
She added: "In addition to complaint resolution our education team did almost 100 education presentations and we handled over 600 inquiries helping people to understand their rights and responsibilities."
'A collective responsibility'
The commission's legal counsel "identified staffing issues and limited resources" as reasons for the delays, according to the written judgment by the P.E.I. Court of Appeal.
Delay can cause real prejudice and can result in breach of procedural fairness. — P.E.I. Court of Appeal
The ruling suggested responsibility for the delays may lie beyond the commission, to the legislature and to the provincial government itself.
"There is a collective responsibility for this state of default. The legislature deemed human rights to be of primary importance ... the [Human Rights] Act implicitly envisions timely administration of complaints.
"Delay can cause real prejudice and can result in breach of procedural fairness," the court warned.
Court sides with commission's decision
The court said the delay, though lengthy, did not create grounds for appeal in this most recent case involving the complaint against the P.E.I. Teachers Federation.
The high court ended up agreeing with the 2021 decision of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.
"The complainant's suspicion and supposition do not amount to more than accusations without evidence," the court wrote.