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Nasar Nader lays out photographs of a bedbug infestation that he tried to present as evidence at a Landlord and Tenant Board hearing in Vaughan, Ont., on April 5.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Online legal hearings have become an obstacle for renters seeking recourse in landlord-tenant disputes, especially those who have limited access to technology.

Although computers and cellphones allow participants to log in from anywhere, they have introduced problems ranging from glitchy software and no internet connection to confusion and mistaken identities.

“It’s been very demoralizing,” said Stephanie Cox, a lawyer with Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, a not-for-profit group that provides free legal advice to low-income residents. “We’re seeing low-income individuals unable to defend their housing because they don’t have the technology.”

Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), the body charged with resolving rental disputes, went virtual in March, 2020, along with the province’s courts and other tribunals. This occurred as Canada’s affordable housing situation deteriorated, and quickly became a source of frustration for renters.

The province’s ombudsman had launched an investigation into delays at the LTB in January, 2020, before the online hearings began. More than 1,600 complaints have been filed to the investigation.

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Nasar Nader struggled to figure out how to provide evidence that his family of five had suffered from a bedbug infestation.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Renters and tenant advocates call the online process dehumanizing and inefficient. They say they can wait for hours in a virtual waiting room. They can sometimes hear private conversations. They often don’t know who they are speaking to, and they don’t know how to provide evidence. And that’s the experience for those who have internet access and can navigate an online world.

Lisa Taschuk said that, at her online hearing, she spoke to a person she thought was a mediator for the landlord-tenant board but turned out to be her landlord’s lawyer.

Ms. Taschuk had missed rent payments after she lost her job managing a call centre. She was only able to dial in to the hearing, and spent the first portion waiting to hear the last four digits of her phone number so she could be admitted into the hearing room. Then, the voice on the other end of the call kept asking if she wanted to speak to a mediator or an investigator.

So when Ms. Taschuk started telling the person she was not able to pay the rent because she lost her job, she thought she was speaking to a mediator. It was only after Ms. Taschuk agreed to a repayment plan that she discovered she had been negotiating directly with her landlord’s lawyer.

“I felt a little duped, to be honest,” she said. “I’m trying to think what the exact wording was. They definitely didn’t say, ‘Do you want to speak with a lawyer from the people that are against me right now,’” she said.

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For Paula Grove, the process was disorienting and intimidating. Ms. Grove was due to attend an online hearing after her landlord served her with an eviction notice, saying the 12-unit apartment building she was living in was going to be renovated.

On the day of her hearing, Ms. Grove logged on early using her computer. She said she had no idea how long it would take or how long she would wait. While she waited, her paralegal called and said she could stay in her apartment if she agreed to pay 30 per cent more in rent every month. She said the paralegal told her he had negotiated the deal before the start of the hearing and that it was less work for him, adding: “You’re not going to get better than this and you have to decide now.” Ms. Grove said: “It was just so intimidating and frightening.”

She accepted the deal, but said she worries about tenants who are not as capable as she is at defending herself. Her first language is English, she has a master’s degree from York University and knows her rights. “Many people don’t know their rights,” said Ms. Grove, who is a support worker at the YWCA in Hamilton, where she helps women find affordable housing. “People who are living in poverty are not technically savvy. The whole process of using a computer is scary for them already,” she said.

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Nasar Nader with his wife Sofia Ahmadzai.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Asked about technology problems, a spokesperson for Tribunals Ontario said the board has introduced measures to help landlords and tenants participate in online hearings. That includes giving those who need access to a computer or phone the option to attend the hearing at one of their centres in Toronto, London, Ottawa or Hamilton. It also includes directing participants to online tutorials and assigning moderators to help with technical issues.

“We recognize there have been growing pains in the transition from an in-person hearing model to electronic hearings over a relatively short period of time,” said Janet Deline, spokesperson for Tribunals Ontario, which includes the board and 12 other tribunals. “The LTB continues to look at ways to improve virtual hearings and ensure that everyone has access and can participate fully in their hearings,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Tribunals Ontario had been moving away from in-person hearings to ones conducted by telephone or videoconference. Tribunals Ontario said it was the best way to provide timely, efficient and accessible dispute-resolution services, and that participants could request an in-person hearing.

Ms. Deline said LTB data show that only a fraction of applicants request in-person hearings. However, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario said many tenants do not know they can request an in-person hearing. “In my experience as a lawyer advising tenants, most were unaware of the option to request accommodation,” said Ryan Hardy, who represents low-income tenants for the centre. He added that the option was poorly publicized, buried on the LTB website and written in technical, legal language.

Out of the 13 tribunals in the province, the LTB routinely receives the most complaints.

Emmanuelle Bernheim, a University of Ottawa law professor whose research includes justice and inequality, said the perception that online judicial hearings are more accessible does not match the reality. “It’s really confusing to be online. It’s not easy to ask questions,” she said. She pointed out that landlords and their lawyers naturally have more experience in a hearing. “They know how it works,” she said.

Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s Ms. Cox said technology has become a barrier. She said more tenants are missing their hearings because they don’t have the means to attend them, and if they do attend and have to wait for a long time, think the technology has failed or something else went wrong. “This is really an access-to-justice issue where people aren’t even getting their foot in the door,” she said.

Nasar Nader’s first language is Farsi. He struggled to figure out how to provide evidence that his family of five had suffered from a bedbug infestation. His landlord had used heat – a common bedbug removal method – to get rid of the pests. But the heat damaged all his furniture, and so he asked the landlord to replace it. Mr. Nader, who has three children aged 2, 6 and 8, said his landlord refused.

He had a doctor’s note confirming his son was bitten by bed bugs. He had more than 300 photos of his damaged furniture and clothing and his son’s rash. But he spent months trying to upload the evidence online. He said it was hard to read all the instructions, and he estimates he called the board 50 times and sent more than 500 e-mails requesting help.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “It was a very, very difficult time.”

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