SOAR's Service Equity Policy

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SOAR Service Equity Policy

 

The Society of Ontario Adjudicators and Regulators (SOAR) is committed to service equity. Equity and access for disadvantaged persons is an essential part of the service of adjudication within the administrative justice system. This statement of the SOAR Service Equity Policy is based upon the report of SOAR Service Equity Committee, entitled "Towards Service Equity".

A. SOAR Service Equity Policy - Goals and Principles

Service Equity is an essential part of accessibility, which is one of the principles of administrative justice. Service Equity is also an essential part of a "customer service" philosophy which envisions adjudication or administrative justice as a service, with consumers and potential consumers (who may not be aware of the agency or its functions).

Service Equity will ensure an administrative justice system in which agencies are:

  1. accessible to all persons who may require the adjudication services provided by the agency;
  2. sensitive to the needs and barriers faced by disadvantaged consumers of the agency; and
  3. accountable for fulfilling the fundamental goals of accessibility and equity.
B. Report of the Service Equity Committee - "Towards Service Equity"

The Service Equity Committee, chaired by Mary Cornish, was established by SOAR in 1994. The Committee was set up to develop a framework to help agencies or tribunals ensure access to the administrative justice system for people who are disadvantaged. The Committee provided a report to SOAR dated October 31, 1994. This report, "Towards Service Equity", articulates a pressing need for comprehensive service equity strategies in the administrative justice system. The report defines the issues and challenges that must be addressed, particularly through the development and implementation of service equity plans.

The Service Equity Committee report is the basis of this Service Equity Policy. Excerpts from the Committee's report are attached as an Appendix.

The Committee's report sets out the background and terms of reference. The report notes the current context or environment for administrative justice. The population of Ontario has changed dramatically, and more change is forecast. The report outlines some of the issues or barriers facing disadvantaged Ontarians, including the elderly, youth, children, women, lesbians, gay men, bi-sexuals, people with disabilities, First Nations and aboriginal people, racial minorities, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, people living in poverty, people with lower literacy skills, and people involved in the criminal justice system.

In addition, the report notes the legal obligations of agencies under the Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, as well as other fundamental legal obligations such as the rules of natural justice.

The report views administrative justice as a service which is provided by agencies and boards. In this context, the consumers of the administrative justice system may face barriers or systemic discrimination in the provision of services. Service equity will enable agencies to provide disadvantaged Ontarians with a fairer and more accessible administrative justice system. Administrative justice services must be inclusive of everyone and meet the diverse needs of different groups.

Service equity plans will guide progress towards "barrier-free justice", as well as ensuring accountability by the agencies to the consumers they serve. The report identifies four necessary components of a good service equity plan:

  1. commitment to service equity at every level of the organization;
  2. adequate resources;
  3. appropriate training and education; and
  4. on-going efforts to obtain input from consumers and potential consumers about the organization's services.

The report outlines the consultation process which the Service Equity Committee undertook. There is a discussion of issues and perceptions under eight sub-headings (see the Appendix). This discussion outlines some of the concerns, expressed by advocates and others from disadvantaged communities, regarding agencies and problems of accessibility, representation and sensitivity.

The report provides a framework for developing a service equity plan, with concrete actions and a service equity checklist. Service equity plans may include possible measures and initiatives such as public education, translation, flexible hours of service, plain language, simplified procedures, accessible hearing room facilities, and so forth.

Finally, the report sets out a number of principles and resolutions for SOAR to adopt. These recommendations may be found generally reflected in the SOAR Service Equity Policy. The full list of recommendations is reproduced in the Appendix. The first recommendation includes the following:

  1. Every agency has the responsibility to preserve and enhance confidence in the administration of justice. This can only be done when the administrative justice system is inclusive. Agencies must perform their duties and provide their services free of barriers for disadvantaged consumers.
C. Service Equity and the Principles of Administrative Justice

The principles of service equity may be derived from broader principles of administrative justice. A proposed code of first principles was presented to the SOAR Board of Governors by the SOAR Working Committee on First Principles of Administrative Justice, on March 6, 1995. The principle of most relevance to this Service Equity Policy is Principle No. 1:

1. Administrative justice requires that the adjudicative process be accessible.

The commentary to this principle states:

  • The adjudicative process must be accessible to those for whom it is intended. Physical barriers or impediments should be minimized, with accommodation being made for persons with different abilities and persons who speak languages other than French and English. Offices or information sources should be located in the communities where those for whom the process is intended live. Participation in the process itself should be facilitated, with hearings being held in the communities at times convenient to the users. As a rule, people should not have to travel unreasonable distances in order to participate in the adjudicative process.
  • The process should be culturally sensitive. Information about the process should be readily available. People must also know that the process exists and that they can use it. It should be relatively simple to initiate the process and persons should not be excluded because of lack of ability to pay. Competent, professional assistance should be available to parties who require it. Different techniques should be used to make the process more convenient and available to the users; these can include greater use of teleconferencing or video conferencing, paper hearings or hearings that allow the use of recorded evidence and submissions rather than written documents.
D. Service Equity and Customer Service

The principles of service equity may also be seen to be part of a "good customer service" philosophy. Government and the public sector have been focusing on the concepts of accessibility and customer service for many years. Accessibility is also a priority within the administrative justice system. In addition, agencies must promote the concept that adjudication is a service, with consumers or customers, although this analogy naturally has its limits when considering the fact that an adjudicative decision must be impartial, and usually leads to a winning party and a losing party.

Service equity for disadvantaged members of the public is a natural extension of traditional principles of accessibility and customer service. Although these principles will be responsive to individual or specific situations which may be unique to different agencies, this in itself may not be completely effective to address service equity concerns. The aim of service equity is not to address every individual or diverse need. The added focus of service equity is needed to respond fully to systemic discrimination which may be faced by persons who are disadvantaged for reasons which are shared by many other persons dealing with the agency or with government in general. It is recognized that the implications of service equity may be very different from agency to agency.

There may be many potential consumers or other members of the public who are not aware of the agency or its services. Agencies have some responsibility to reach out to their "invisible" or potential consumers, but the public interest and the principles of fairness and impartiality may impose some limits on an agency's outreach or public education activities for example, an adjudicative tribunal can not be seen to be favouring one party or interest over another. The government, SOAR and other organizations also have an important role to play in filling this gap in accessibility.

E. SOAR Strategies and Actions

As part of its commitment to service equity, SOAR adopts the following strategies and actions - SOAR will:

  1. Urge all agencies in Ontario's administrative justice system to recognize and supportSOARService Equity Goals and Principles, and to participate in strategies and actions which promote service equity, including formal agency goals and service equity plans.
  2. Establish a standing committee of SOAR, the SOAR Service Equity Committee, to coordinate and administerSOARservice equity strategies, and to assess the overall performance of Ontario's administrative justice system on service equity issues.
  3. Require the SOAR Service Equity Committee to report annually to the SOAR Board of Governors and the Circle of Chairs, on the activities and progress of service equity from a system-wide perspective. Furthermore, there will be a report at the Annual Conference. Agency chairs will be requested to provide information to the SOAR Service Equity Committee on the activities and progress of each agency on service equity.
  4. Ensure that service equity issues are integrated into SOAR education and training programs for adjudicators and regulators.
  5. Promote a model Code of Ethics for agency members and staff which will include service equity issues as an integral component.
  6. Work with government, advocates, stakeholders and other groups in identifying needs and barriers, and developing solutions, including outreach and public education. SOAR also recognizes the importance of community-based groups representing disadvantaged groups, including health and social service agencies and legal clinics, as links to the administrative justice system.
  7. Support and promote adequate resources for service equity.
  8. Work with the Ontario government to develop an open and merit-based appointments process which will have standards to ensure that agency members are qualified and representative. These standards should include sensitivity to disadvantaged persons and to service equity issues.
  9. Work with the Ontario government to identify legislative or policy initiatives which will assist service equity, including further reform to the Statutory Powers Procedure Act, and innovative use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practices.
  10. Promote service equity as an essential part of the Ontario government's agenda on agency reform.

Adopted by SOAR Board of Governors

June 8, 1995


APPENDIX (Excerpts from "Towards Service Equity") (the full report of the SOAR Service Equity Committee is available from SOAR)

I. Discussion of Issues

"Among the many comments and suggestions heard in the course of the committee's consultations and discussions, a number of common themes have emerged. These are set out below in order to provide a basis for further discussion within the administrative justice system:"

[Note: only the sub-headings are listed here; see pages 12 - 22 for full discussion]

  1. Agencies within the administrative justice system are generally not seen as providing a service, but rather as authoritative bodies with power to affect peoples' lives.
  2. The existence of the vast majority of agencies within the administrative justice system is not known to many whom these bodies are intended to serve. Neither is it generally understood that these agencies could be of actual service to those who have never come forward.
  3. The administrative justice system is generally perceived by members of disadvantaged communities as an extension of government bureaucracy.
  4. Agencies within the administrative justice system are generally open to the criticism that their various processes are extremely complex and legalistic.
  5. Despite some degree of progress with employment equity initiatives, the administrative justice system in Ontario continues to be perceived as predominantly directed and staffed by a homogeneous population of white, able-bodied men.
  6. Within the agency community, there are deficiencies in the awareness of the issues affecting disadvantaged communities and a generalized lack of sensitivity toward members of these groups.
  7. The specialization of agencies, boards and commissions and their jurisdictional limitations are perceived as generally arbitrary and unreasonable.
  8. There is a widespread perception of a general lack of commitment to equity in service delivery within the administrative justice system.

II. Recommendations (see pages 31 - 33)

Your Committee recommends that SOAR adopts the following principles and resolutions:

  1. Every agency has the responsibility to preserve and enhance confidence in the administration of justice. This can only be done when the administrative justice system is inclusive. Agencies must perform their duties and provide their services free of barriers for disadvantaged consumers.
    • Disadvantaged Ontarians include First Nations and aboriginal people; women; racial minorities; persons with disabilities; lesbians and gay men; youth and seniors; persons living in poverty; persons of diverse religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, recent immigrants and refugees; and persons disadvantaged because of literacy challenges and socio-economic status; or involvement with the criminal justice system.
  2. Some consumers of the administrative justice service have easier access to services and facilities and are better served than others. Some potential consumers are too disenfranchised to even seek access. Better served Ontarians are usually those who have relatively greater confidence, support and resources.
  3. SOAR recognized that many disadvantaged Ontarians face serious barriers when trying to gain or in actually gaining access to the administrative justice system.
    • These barriers are often systemic. They may exist not only in the procedures adopted by agencies, but also in their approaches, attitudes, methods of service delivery and in the exercise of the statutory discretion they are given to make decisions.
  4. As public bodies, agencies must take a strong leadership role in implementing service equity plans to help eliminate barriers, provide accommodation and implement positive measures to promote equitable delivery of service.
  5. Service equity plans and initiatives help agencies to:
    • ensure that administrative justice services are inclusive of everyone and meet the diverse needs of different consumer groups.
    • provide disadvantaged Ontarians with a fairer and more accessible administrative justice system.
    • meet their legal obligations under the Human Rights Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the common law to provide "barrier-free", non-discriminatory administrative justice services.
  6. Central to the development of service equity initiatives and plans is effective consultation with disadvantaged groups. Disadvantaged groups should be consulted about the operation and decision-making process of agencies. These consumers bring an essential point of view and key service information on how to eliminate barriers and promote equality.
  7. Agencies will benefit from learning a consumer perspective. Agencies are responsible for delivering their administrative justice services in a way which is responsive to consumer needs and accountable to the public they serve.
  8. The strategies and measure need to move towards service equity will vary depending on the nature of the agency, the specific characteristics of the service provided and the particular concerns of the agencies' disadvantaged consumers.
  9. Agencies are responsible for implementing effective service equity plans for the services they provide or oversee. These plans should:
    • include endorsement by the head of the organization and senior management.
    • include information sharing and awareness among all managers and staff.
    • include appropriate training and education.
    • provide for a review of service policies and practices by the agency to identify and remove systemic service barriers. Such a review would help the agency to identify the particular equity issues which it needs to address and the steps to be taken to move towards service equity.
    • have specific objectives to eliminate inequities or barriers in services.
    • be supported by an active employment equity program.
    • include an implementation and monitoring mechanism whereby agencies can monitor and report regularly on the results achieved through their service equity initiatives or plans. This will help determine whether services meet the needs of disadvantaged groups fairly and effectively and enable adaption or revision of plans as necessary.
    • ensure that the organization allocates appropriate resources for service equity initiatives.
  10. SOAR forwards this report to the Attorney General, the Chair of Management Board of Cabinet and other appropriate Ministers for review and appropriate action, including providing the necessary resourcing to agencies for implementing service equity plans and initiatives.
  11. SOAR invites its members to agree to report back to the Annual Conference in November, 1995 on the service equity plans and initiatives which have been developed in their agencies over the year.
  12. SOAR members agree to share their resources, including but not limited to demographic data and information about community groups.
  13. Create on ongoing forum to share experience, expertise, materials and resources.