The B.C. government has declined to reappoint the chair of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, Heather MacNaughton, as well as another tribunal member, Judith Parrack. This has some human-rights experts concerned about what this means for the future of the nine-member quasi-judicial body, which issues legally binding decisions.
MacNaughton wasn’t available for comment, but hers and Parrack’s departures were confirmed to the Georgia Straight by Bill Black, an internationally renowned human-rights expert and professor emeritus at the UBC law school. Their terms end on July 31.
“I think Heather did a superb job,” Black said by phone.
MacNaughton, a former chair of the Ontario Human Rights Board of Inquiry, was appointed chair of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in 2000. When then–attorney general Geoff Plant abolished the B.C. Human Rights Commission in 2003, MacNaughton created a model by which complainants could go directly to the tribunal.
“She made the direct-access model work—where you don’t go through a commission—as well as it’s capable of working,” Black said. “She insisted on a merit process of hiring tribunal members.”
Parrack, a former lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, was appointed to the tribunal in 2004.
On June 30, the British Columbia Law Institute announced that the Ministry of Labour had asked it to conduct legal research into workplace dispute-resolution mechanisms in B.C. Currently, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal can issue rulings when employees file discrimination complaints against their employers.
Less than two weeks later, on July 12, the B.C. government posted an advertisement for a new part-time chair of the tribunal on the Web site of the Board Resourcing and Development Office. Black pointed out that hiring part-time chairs for human-rights tribunals hasn’t worked very well in other provinces.
“People don’t get the expertise,” he said. “Sometimes there can be major turnover.”
Vancouver lawyer Lindsay Lyster resigned from the tribunal in March. In a phone interview with the Straight, she said there is “a great deal of uncertainty” about how human-rights cases will be dealt with in the future.
“I think the public should be asking questions,” Lyster stated. “What are the government’s intentions with respect to the future of the protection of human rights in this province? What mechanisms do they intend to have in place to ensure that people have access to justice in the form of human rights? I have no idea what the answers to these questions might be. But what I do know is those questions need to be asked because the things that I am seeing are disturbing to me.”
Shelagh Day, senior editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter, told the Straight by phone that the B.C. Liberal government has already done a “lot of damage to human-rights institutions in this province” by abolishing the B.C. Human Rights Commission. “I’m very concerned about what’s happening to human-rights complainants and what will happen to them in the future in terms of legal representation,” Day said.
Attorney General Mike de Jong did not return a phone call from the Straight by deadline. The B.C. Law Institute declined the Straight’s request for an interview on what its review of workplace dispute-resolution mechanisms might involve.
Former attorney general Plant, who is on the institute’s board, works at the Vancouver law firm Heenan Blaikie. One of his partners in the firm, lawyer Peter Gall, has coauthored a paper calling for a new tribunal that would deal with labour relations, human rights, and employment standards.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Gall said that such a tribunal would be more efficient because it would eliminate overlap in the jurisdictions of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, the B.C. Labour Relations Board, and the Employment Standards Tribunal.
“I’m just heartened that the government is—at least to the extent of sending it out for comment [through the B.C. Law Institute]—looking at this,” Gall said. “I don’t know whether they’ll ever do anything.”
When asked if he ever raises the issue with Plant at his law firm, Gall replied, “I pound away at him all the time. I say to him, ”˜Geoff, why didn’t you do this when you were the attorney general?’ He said he had enough on his plate.”
Day said she disagrees with Gall’s proposal because human-rights tribunal members bring a very different perspective than labour adjudicators, who she said are mainly concerned with “labour peace”.
Black said he thinks it’s a “bad idea” to create a “super-tribunal” to deal with human rights, labour relations, and employment standards. He pointed out that members of human-rights tribunals have expertise in this area, which might not necessarily be the case with a labour arbitrator.
“In a labour model, you have two strong advocates on either side: the union and the employer,” Black added. “And that isn’t true in human rights. In other words, how would an individual who thought they were being discriminated against by an employer be able to take on that kind of thing?”
He also pointed out that people who aren’t represented by a lawyer, whether they are complainants or small-business respondents, have a far smaller chance of winning. He also worries about what would happen to human-rights complaints that don’t deal with employment, such as those that involve housing and public services.
“I don’t like dividing responsibility for human rights,” Black said.