Before I was licensed as a paralegal, I had to go through an internship for one week. My college placed me at Prudent Paralegals Toronto ( torontoparalegalservices.net), a top rated Toronto paralegal firm. They practice in small claims court, and in the landlord and tenant board. They have the busiest practice in Toronto and I was fortunate to learn a lot from them. I was surprised as to how different the knowledge I learned in college was to the real world. It is much more different to experience a paralegal role first hand than learning about it in a class. In my placement I was drafting plaintiff claims for the senior paralegals and serving documents Now I understand how difficult of a job it is to be a paralegal and it takes true dedication.
I worked for Jonathan Yam, a grandfathered paralegal from when the paralegal licensing was introduced. He walked me through all the different steps of the superior court and as well as the Landlord and tenant board. I realized that in order to be a top paralegal, one must constantly read and stay updated as to the laws of the jurisdiction one practices in. Law is constantly evolving and paralegals have a duty to uphold the high levels of professionalism. One day I hope to start my own paralegal practice and I am excited about the future.
Paralegals are essential so that everyone can afford legal services. No longer is the law only for the wealthy. I am very proud of the move Ontario has made to license paralegals.
On January 22, 2019, I visited the Landlord and Tenant Board in Toronto. The board office was located at 3 Robert Speck Parkway in Mississauga. It was located very close to Square One which is the heart of Mississauga. I had no difficulty finding the location as the board office was located in a large office building. There were ample amounts of parking spots available, however it was paid parking. I was charged $7 in order to park my vehicle there for the day. For those who were to take public transit, the tribunal was located near major urban centres making it very accessible through public transit.
The board office took up one whole floor of the building as was located on the fifth floor. There were two hearing rooms and some mediation rooms for the Landlord and Tenant Board. I was surprised to find that the tribunal was not as crowded as I had imagined. The floor was very well maintained and the same could be said for the entire building. On the same floor there was also a Social Benefits Tribunal.
The layout was very intuitive and easy to access. There were arrows on the walls indicating which direction the hearing rooms were in. In front of each hearing room there was a list of matters that would be addressed starting from 9:30 AM. There was also a reception area where one could ask questions regarding anything related to the tribunal. They instructed me as to where to go and which hearing room had the most interesting hearings. Overall, I would say the receptionists were friendly in their demeanor. It is important for the layout and overall design of the tribunal to be intuitive and simple as it needs to be easily accessible for the average person.
Duty Counsel was not present in the court room but was recommended to many people by the adjudicator. There was an area on the floor where individuals who needed some legal advice could walk in and find out more information or other options relating to their legal dispute. Duty Counsel was also available to help tenants fill out documents and forms relating to the procedural requirements of the tribunal. Two of the most common forms mentioned during the proceedings were forms N12 and N5.
Lawyers and Paralegals
During my time at the Landlord and Tenant Board I saw a variety of different cases being heard. There were no lawyers present however most of the time it was either a landlord representing themselves, through a family member or the landlord being represented through a paralegal. I would say that roughly 50% of the time, paralegals were representing their clients. The other 50% consisted of relatives of the landlords or the landlords themselves.
Most cases during my observation were initiated by the landlord. The majority of the cases during my day at the tribunal consisted of eviction notices or tenants requesting deposit money back from a landlord. I found that in some cases, the paralegals representing certain tenants tried to use the reason of “bad faith” to argue their clients’ interests. There were some individuals who I believe truly needed these services but did not avail of them prior to their hearings.
It was easy to determine who the paralegals were as they conducted themselves differently than the other participants. All the paralegals were dressed in formal attire. The paralegals tended to be more aggressive when it came to advocating their point of view.
The Hearing Room and the Parties
During my observation there were 25 matters to be heard during the full session. These matters consisted of a variety of different disputes. Some of the hearings took very little time and one hearing even took one hour. It was all dependant on how complex the situation was and how much the adjudicator needed to analyze the situation. It was also dependant on how many pieces of evidence were submitted to the tribunal.
The hearing room was quite large and I would estimate to be around 50 seats in the total room. There was security guard present and the adjudicator at the front. The room was completely silent during the hearings for the most part. On some occasions, some individuals would talk to each other and they would quickly become silenced by the adjudicator. Only adults attended the tribunal and I did not see any families with children. Most of those attending the hearings came early and waited for their matter to be called. There was much more activity in the morning than in the afternoon.
The Board officer/Member
The adjudicator was sitting in the front of the hearing room with her name on the front of her desk. I decided to look her profile up and found that she was extremely qualified to be an adjudicator as she had a plethora of experience in the field of real estate law. This made me understand that this is one of the advantage of tribunals over courts. Tribunals are more specialized than a court system as those who are conducting the hearings have both the legal knowledge and specialized experience in order to make better decisions.
I was surprised as to how well the adjudicator conducted the hearings. She was very friendly to both the landlord and the tenant and wanted to hear all the details. When a landlord or tenant was not represented, the Board officer tried to help them as much as possible. There was one incident where the landlord did not have enough copies of a document so she went to her office to make copies for him.
I would feel very comfortable appearing before the Landlord and Tenant Board as the environment is not that rigid. It is still likely that those who do not know the law may have trouble presenting their case however, the tribunal does as much as possible to assist these people.
Overall, I believe that each trial was treated fairly and the Board officer analyzed all relevant facts before making a decision. Sometimes a decision was not made on the spot due to the complexity of the case and the participants were informed that they would receive a decision within 30 days.
It was interesting to see the behaviour of certain tenants and landlords. Sometimes, one of these parties would become frustrated because they did not understand the procedures of the tribunal. The Board officer tried as best as possible to explain the steps in simple English. Some of the individuals that were at the hearing did not speak fluent English and this made the Board officer’s job more challenging. There was one instance where a tenant filled out a form incorrectly and the tenant became very frustrated with the Board officer. There was another instance where a woman who was a tenant kept on repeatedly yelling at the Board officer. I was amazed to see that the Board officer repeatedly answered her in a polite fashion. After a few times of explaining to her the situation, the tenant had to be escorted out by security. I understand that these situations can be frustrating for either of the parties however generally most people were able to speak calmly without becoming emotional.
On the door to the hearing room, there were 25 matters posted for the day. These hearings commenced at 9:30 in the morning. There were hearings for a variety of different matters including, unpaid rent, evicting tenants, and disputes regarding the return of a deposit. One tenant filed an application with the tribunal in order to force the landlord to repair a washing machine.
Many matters were either adjourned either due to an error in an application or a party not being present. In other situations, the Board officer needed more time to think about a case before issuing a judgement. In other cases, a judgement was made quickly after the Board officer analyzed all the relevant facts.
In regards to evidence, many types of evidence were allowed including videos. In one hearing, even though there was an objection from one party, the video was still shown to the adjudicator. I found the tribunal to be very liberal with evidence and there were no strict rules. I did not see anyone present hearsay as evidence.
There was one instance where both parties were interested in mediation. The Board officer then called a mediator in and I had to leave as those discussions are not available for the public to hear.
During my visit to the Landlord and Tenant Board, I was made aware of how a tribunal operates and how it is much different from a court. The process is overall very flexible and there is an expectation that those who are coming before the tribunal are not well versed in law. On the other hand, there were landlords and paralegals who were very proficient with the law.
In one instance, the adjudicator allowed a landlord to be present through a phone call which was suprising to me. The Board officer found the landlord’s representative not qualified to represent the landlord. He then offered to put the landlord on the phone and the hearing was then commenced in that fashion. A mediation session was also held with the landlord on the phone.
I do believe that access to justice is evident in the Landlord and Tenant Board however, there is one area in which it can be improved. When two parties wanted their matter moved to another date, the earliest time slot was 3 months away. I find this to be unreasonable as if a landlord is having a tenant that does not pay rent for three months, they may face financial hardship. The government should find a way to decrease the 3-month delay to promote access to justice.
Access to justice is evident in the tribunal as there was a duty counsel area in which one could ask questions if they were unsure about anything at the tribunal. Landlords could also go to a self-help desk in order to get assistance if needed.
There was one situation where the Board officer made three copies of the letter of authorization for the landlord so that it could be given to the tenant. This would not happen in a court where the process is much more formal.
Throughout all the hearings, the adjudicator referred to sections of the Residential Tenancies Act, the enabling legislation for the Landlord and Tenant Board. As the tribunal is created by the act, it is a requirement for the adjudicator to be well versed in what the act states.
Prior to each hearing, the Board officer called the file number and then the address of the property in which there is a dispute. The individuals would go up, sit down and state their names. All the procedures for each matter were the same. This is a testament to how procedural fairness is a requirement for tribunals to follow. When a party wanted to skip a procedural step, they were quickly told that procedures must be followed otherwise if they are not followed, the decision may be subject to review. Procedural fairness is such an essential underpinning to the tribunal so that it treats everyone fairly. The Board officer was not biased at any moment and she kept an open mind. Everyone had the ability to go before the Board officer and present their argument provided it was not frivolous or irrelevant to the issue. The ability to have a hearing demonstrates that natural justice is existing within our legal system.
The Board officers were also very attentive to stay in their jurisdiction and not provide relief that they were not allowed to do. In one hearing, the tenant asked for certain relief but the Board officer stated that it was not in her jurisdiction. They also exercised discretion and considered all facts when a unique scenario was presented to them. For example, one matter was adjourned till later on in the day in order for a witness to be present.
I believe that paralegals can help promote access to justice by following the Paralegal Code of Conduct and acting professionally in the Landlord and Tenant Board. Instead of trying to intimidate the other party, they should be calm and collected so as to let the other side present their side of the story without feeling intimidated.
Overall, my observation at the Landlord and Tenant Board made me aware of how a tribunal operates. It is different than a court in which there are strict formal procedures and the judges do not get very deeply involved. In a tribunal the Board officers have more freedom to ask questions and try to piece together information. Hearings were also faster in a tribunal and the Board officer was very specialized in her field. I now understand the necessity of having tribunals and they are a crucial component of the legal system.
On October 24, 2018, I visited the Brampton Small Claims Court located at 7765 Hurontario Street. This was the first time I had ever been to a courthouse and was intrigued by what I saw. There were no trials running that day however, I did see many different motions that took place. These motions were related to unpaid rent, unpaid loans, default judgement, adding defendants and for amending a plaintiff’s claim. In this observation report, I will reflect on what I observed during my visit and relate it to legal concepts.
When I first walked in, there was no front desk so all those attending had to know where they were going. The matters were posted beside each court room and those would be the events for the day. Initially, the area was difficult to navigate however after understanding the system, it was easy to determine the different hearings and where they were to be held.
There were 5 different active courtrooms the day I went to the courthouse. In the morning, the clerks would post the different schedules for the day beside each door and this was also done during the end of the day. I tried to enter the settlement conference courtroom however I was told those were private. Three courtrooms that day were dedicated to settlement conferences. The courtroom had a judge in the back with a witness stand on the right side and a clerk in the front. The clerk’s role was to pass documents to the judge for review and he would make hand written notes on each document.
In one situation, a plaintiff did not appear for their own motion which I found quite strange. I learned that sometimes defendants do not attend some motions as by not attending, it means that they are fine with the motion that is being proposed. Overall the whole process was very informal and flexible.
The judges were friendly when conversed with outside the courtroom (with students) but in the courtroom, they were very strict with the proceedings and straight to the point. They did not permit any discussion that was unnecessary and irrelevant to the facts. For example, there was one defendant who was noted in default judgement and ordered to pay damages which he agreed to. He had constantly not met any deadline to pay and brought up different reasons such as having his mortgage license revoked. The defendant discussed with the plaintiff regarding his inability to find a job to which the judge stated that these matters are not relevant to the case and that the defendant is required to pay according to the judgement.
It was from this experience I realized that obtaining a judgement in court is not as easy as it may seem as there are many tactics than can be used to delay judgement. In one case, the defendant did not file documents after a hearing and asked the judge for a motion to allow them to file. This case had gone on for two years. According to the plaintiff, over that time (2 years), the defendant continued to file different motions to delay the hearings and purposefully ignored correspondence emails. The plaintiff claimed to the judge that the defendant’s file was over 1,000 pages and they will need time to go through it. The judge concluded that he will grant the motion and provide a trial date that was agreeable to both parties and that the trial date was “firm to both parties”. He then issued costs fixed at $300 to whomever wins the proceeding. While I found this sum low, I do understand that the Small Claims Court’s main goal is to provide an expeditious trial at a low cost.
In one situation, the plaintiff was asking the judge for costs as the defendant admitted to liability and proposed a payment plan many months ago yet had not paid any amount. The judge told the plaintiff that there is no point in seeking costs against the defendant and he does not think it is necessary. I was surprised by this statement as I thought costs should be applied as this motion would be an unnecessary expense by the plaintiff had the defendant paid.
When I first entered a courtroom, the judge was discussing how there was no swearing in the affidavit and the month was not properly dated. The judge then asked the plaintiff to go to the witness stand to swear certain statements. He was given the option of swearing on a religious book or giving an oath of affidavit and in this case, he chose the Bible. I was amazed to see how lenient the judges were and that is reflected in the Rules of the Small Claims Court in Section 1.03 (1) where it states that the “Rules shall be liberally construed to secure the just, most expeditious and least expensive determination”. Instead of asking the plaintiff to correct his mistake, the judge allowed it to be corrected on the spot.
There was one incident where one plaintiff would not leave the courtroom and was not acting professionally. He was not prepared for his case and would not listen to the judge’s orders. After he interrupted another proceeding, security was called as he would not leave the courtroom. Once security was called he left the courtroom. Based on this observation, I saw how those who are not well versed in law can become frustrated with the proceedings as they are unaware of the rules and procedure.
It is based on the above experience that I realized how essential paralegals are to the legal system. Paralegals give an opportunity for the average person to have a professional representative who has the knowledge to maneuver within the legal system at an affordable cost. Those that are not represented by a professional may face frustration as they do not fully understand the process.
What I was surprised to see was that there were very few paralegals present in the courtroom. Most were self represented and the minority had a lawyer/paralegal as a representative. This is a testament to how access to justice is working effectively. Some were well versed in the field of law and there were others who were there for the first time. Even those that were well versed in law did not have an advantage as there was an even playing field between those with legal experience and those without. This is a testament that access to justice is working effectively in our legal system. I also observed how statues are a key source of law in Ontario. Judges occasionally referenced the Courts of Justice Act when making decisions and everyone was subject to the same rules.
Based on my visit, I found that access to justice is vital to society and the functioning of an effective legal system. Every single Canadian has the opportunity to access justice whether they know the legal system or not. The Small Claims Court makes it easy to present a case and if any error is made, it can easily be corrected with minimal costs. Some of the disputes brought before the court are in the thousands of dollars and if a lawyer were to represent these cases, it would not be practical to go to court. There was one plaintiff who brought forward more than 15 motions for default judgements ranging from a couple thousand dollars to over ten thousand dollars for unpaid debts.
No judge would engage in any unnecessary dialogue with any member of the courtroom other than what pertained to the legal matter. This is important in upholding the Rule of Law in that the judiciary is independent and no one can influence a judge. They must remain independent and free from bias. Only once the court proceedings had ended did the judge give an opportunity for students to ask questions.
To conclude, my experience in the Small Claims Court allowed me to reflect on how access to justice and the rule of law are such an essential underpinning to society. Everyone is equal before the law and has an affordable option to settle disputes legally. There is no bias in the courtroom and the judge stayed neutral towards all cases. The court cases were also heard in a speedy manner so no one would have to wait long for their motion to be heard. While there were lawyers present in some situations, it did not affect where a motion was granted or not as the judge considered the merits of each side’s argument. Now I fully comprehend how essential the Small Claims Court is and how paralegals are able to fill a void that is greatly needed in the legal system.