The rules of procedure before the Human Rights Tribunal are largely set out in the Regulation of the Human Rights Tribunal. This regulation was replaced on September 1, 2023. This article is currently being revised to reflect the new rules. Significant changes include the elimination of the need for parties to file briefs, as well as certain changes regarding the filing of documents (deadlines and use of information technology).
This section introduces the main steps in presenting a case before the Human Rights Tribunal. The idea is not to turn you into a legal expert, but to make sure you’re a well-informed citizen!
Remember that to go before the Tribunal, a case must first be heard by the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (human rights commission). After examining the case, the Commission decides whether it can move on to the Tribunal.
1. The Application
An application is a document used for filing a complaint before the Human Rights Tribunal.
The person who files the application is called the plaintiff. The person against whom the complaint is made is called the defendant.
The application explains what the defendant is accused of doing, the plaintiff’s arguments and what the plaintiff is asking for.
The application is divided into numbered paragraphs. Normally, each paragraph contains one allegation. Allegations can be a fact, an argument or a reference to a piece of evidence.
The plaintiff must file the application in the office of the Court of Québec and serve the application on the defendant. (To serve a document means to deliver it in such a way that there is a proof it was received. The process is called service and is often done by a bailiff.)
Depending on the situation, the plaintiff before the Tribunal can be
- the Commission, which acts as the plaintiff when it decides to bring a case to the Tribunal on behalf of a complainant.
- the complainant if the Commission finds that the complaint is well-founded but decides to withdraw from the file. In some situations, complainants can go before the Tribunal on their own at their own expense.
- someone else, for example, an organization involved in the defense of human rights for specific groups of people, such as seniors.
Complainants who make their own applications (instead of the Commission) must attach to the application the commission’s letter stating that the complaint is well-founded but that the Commission will not represent the complainant before the Tribunal.
2. The Briefs
Within 15 days of filing the application, the plaintiff must file a brief (also called a “factum”). The brief is a longer document explaining the case in more detail. The other parties, such as the defendant, can also file briefs.
The Plaintiff’s Brief
In the brief, the plaintiff must specify the evidence he plans to present (documents, witness testimony, expert reports). The brief must also state what he is asking for. Finally, the plaintiff must give an estimate of the time he needs to present his case before the Tribunal. The Tribunal sends the brief to the defendant and the other parties, if there are any.
The Defendant’s Brief
The defendant can also produce a brief, if she wishes, within 30 days of receiving the plaintiff’s brief. In her brief, she must explain what evidence she plans to present (documents, witness testimony, expert reports) – just like the plaintiff. She must also state what she is asking for. Finally, she must provide an estimate of the time she needs to present her defence to the Tribunal. The Tribunal sends the brief to the plaintiff and the other parties, if any.
3. The Defendant’s Answer and Notice of Contact Information
An “answer” is a written document that indicates the defendant intends to exercise her rights by challenging the claim. The defendant is not obliged to file an answer with the Tribunal, but can choose to do so. Normally the answer is filed in writing.
In all cases, the defendant must file a Notice of Contact Information with the office of the Tribunal. The Tribunal has a model Notice of Contact Information form.
4. Preliminary Applications and Applications during the Proceedings
Throughout the proceedings, the parties may have requests or “applications” for the Tribunal. These requests are made in writing unless they are presented orally at the hearing. The Tribunal must decide on these special requests before giving a final judgment.
Preliminary applications are written requests presented to the Tribunal.
There are 3 types of preliminary applications:
- application to have the complaint rejected
- application to have the case moved to another court
- application to postpone the case
A preliminary application must have an affidavit (official written statement) attached if the facts mentioned in it are not yet proved and part of the court record. The affidavit, which is a kind of written testimony of a person, is treated as evidence.
Arguments over preliminary applications are done orally before the Tribunal. The parties explain their points of view, with or without the help of witnesses. The parties don’t always have to be present, and often the lawyers come to the Tribunal alone at this point.
Applications During the Proceedings
Applications can also be presented during the proceedings. These applications are called “incidental applications”. They can be used to try to change a proceeding (a written document filed with a court, such as an application, affidavit, defence, etc or to ask for access to evidence that is in the possession of the other party and mentioned in that party’s brief.
Incidental applications are usually in writing, but they can also be made orally during the hearing.
A victim or group of victims is automatically party to the case and can intervene before the Tribunal without needing permission. This means that they can produce a brief, present witnesses, question and cross-examine witnesses or even present arguments before the Tribunal.
A person, a group of people or an organization can also become interveners. To do this, the person, group or organization must ask the Tribunal to recognize that they have a sufficient stake in the case.
6. Examinations on Discovery
Each person can question the other parties about the facts of the case, written proceedings, including the application and the briefs, as well as any documents filed with them. This is done outside the presence of the judge.
Everything that is said is recorded and the written out by a stenographer in what is called a transcript. If the person being questioned is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer will be present at the examination as well.
An examination on discovery can help the defendant prepare her brief and think about negotiating a settlement.
A person can also question a third party, such as a witness. But neither party can question the Commission’s staff. Investigators and other Commission workers have an obligation of confidentiality.
Using the Examination on Discovery
Once the examination on discovery is finished, the stenographer prepares the transcript. The transcript can be added to the court record – in part or in its entirety – if the party that asked for the examination in the first place chooses to do so. The questions and answers then form part of the evidence the Tribunal must consider. So, it is important to be well prepared before coming to an examination on discovery: the answers given in the examination have the same weight as if they were given during a hearing before a judge.
7. The Pre-Hearing Conference and Settlement out of Court
The Pre-Hearing Conference
The president (head judge) of the Tribunal decides when a case should have a pre-hearing conference. This is a meeting of all parties with the judge. The purpose is to prepare for the trial by setting out the facts the parties admit, the facts they must prove and the legal questions the Tribunal must decide. The pre-hearing conference can take place over the telephone or in person.
At the pre-hearing conference, the court plans how the trial will proceed so that it will be easier and faster. The parties are asked to consider settling the case.
At any time before the judge’s final decision, the parties can ask the judge or the president of the Tribunal to hold a settlement conference. The judge or the president can also recommend that a settlement conference be held.
The purpose of the settlement conference is to help the parties talk to one another so they can understand each other’s needs and points of view and try to find a solution they can all agree on.
The judge runs the pre-settlement conference and acts as a mediator between the parties.
Settlement out of Court
Sometimes the parties accept a negotiated settlement of the case. This agreement, called an out-of-court settlement can be the result of the pre-hearing conference or informal negotiations between lawyers for the parties.
When a settlement is reached, the parties must file a written notice of settlement in the office of the Tribunal. This puts an end to the case.
8. The Trial
When the parties cannot arrive at a negotiated settlement, the application is presented and argued before the Tribunal during a trial (also called a «hearing”).
For the trial, the Tribunal sits in a “division” of 3 members of the Tribunal: a judge and 2 assessors. The judge runs the trial and gives the final judgment. The assessors help the judge with some tasks, but don’t have any decision-making power. The plaintiff has the burden of proof, which means it is his job to prove the truth of his complaint.
Time and Place of the Trial
The trial takes place in the judicial district (region) where defendant lives or is domiciled, or where he has his main place of business. The president of the Tribunal or the judge chooses the date of the trial with the help of the parties.
Once the date has been chosen, the Tribunal sends the parties a notice of the hearing. The notice specifies the date, place and time. Once this notice is sent, the trial can take place even if one of the parties does not show up. A party can also ask the Tribunal to postpone the trial (by making an application for postponement) for a serious reason, such as illness or the absence of a key witness. The application must be in writing and filed with the president of the Tribunal or the judge at least 10 days prior to the trial.
How the Trial Unfolds
The trial is generally open to the public. The parties take turns presenting the evidence to support their points of view. The plaintiff presents first. The other parties’ lawyers can then question the plaintiff’s witnesses. Once the plaintiff has finished, the other parties present their evidence. The plaintiff can then question the other parties’ witnesses.
The Tribunal can accept any evidence that is relevant and useful. This evidence can include witness testimony, documents, expert reports, videos, tape recordings, photographs and objects. The rules of evidence before the Tribunal are more flexible than in other courts.
Because the rules are relaxed, the judge has a degree of discretion. But the Tribunal still has to respect general principles of justice, such as the right of each party to be heard or to cross-examine witnesses, and the duty of the Tribunal to make fair decisions.
A party that wants to use a document or other piece of evidence must file it with the clerk of the Court of Québec at least 15 days before the trial date. If a party wants to have an expert heard by the Tribunal, he must serve the expert’s report on the other parties and file it at the office of the Court of Québec at least 60 days before the trial.
The parties must also give the office of the court copies of the laws, court decisions and other authorities it wants to rely on at the trial.
9. Matters under Advisement and Judgment
After hearing the evidence and arguments of the parties, the judge gives a written decision about the complaint. The judge is not always able to give a decision right away, and she can take the time she needs to think about the case.
Matters under Advisement and Judgment
The judge can reject the application, accept it, or accept it in part. The judge cannot give more than what is asked for in the application or brief.
The decision can be given orally before the parties, but it still must be put in writing later and served on the parties.
When the case requires even deeper reflection, the judge can declare the hearing suspended to take the decision “under advisement” and make a decision later. The judge has six months to discuss the case with the assessors and make a decision.
When it accepts an application, the Tribunal can order an end to the wrongful behaviour and, if necessary, order that money be paid to the victim(s). In addition, the Tribunal can order the creation of an “an affirmative action” program and it has the power to change, continue or cancel an existing program.
Payment of Damages
The payment of damages (money) is meant to compensate a person for any harm suffered as a result of wrongful behaviour that violated a right protected by the Charter.
“Material” damages compensate for money spent or lost as a result of a Charter violation (for example, where the plaintiff lost a job as a result of discrimination).
“Moral” damages compensate for suffering, inconvenience, loss of quality of life, lost sleep, loss of appetite, low self-esteem, anxiety, anguish, etc., experienced as a result of wrongful behaviour that violates the Charter.
“Punitive” damages can be ordered if the Charter right was violated intentionally. For a violation to be considered intentional, the defendant must have intended to cause the result of his behaviour.
10. Correction, Revision and Revocation
As long as the judgment has not been put into force, the Tribunal can correct an error of writing or calculation. For example, an error may have appeared in the text of the judgment, or numbers could have been missing from the calculation of damages.
Revision and Revocation
On request or on its own initiative, the Tribunal can also revise or revoke (cancel) a judgment that has not been put into force in 3 situations :
- new facts are discovered.
- a legal or procedural mistake has made the decision invalid
- one of the parties was not able to appear in front of the Tribunal for a good reason
When there is a revocation, the decision is cancelled and a new hearing must be held. When there is a revision, the decision is modified but there is no new hearing. Revision and revocation only happen in rare cases.
An appeal is a procedure used to challenge a judge’s decision when one of the parties believes that judge has made an error. An appeal is not a way for dissatisfied parties to have a second trial on a matter already decided by the Tribunal.
The party that launches an appeal must show that the judge committed an error in her appreciation of the law or the facts. This error must be serious and must have influenced the result of the trial. The appeal is not a second trial. At the appeal stage, witnesses and evidence are very rarely presented. Any evidence submitted on appeal must be new.
Appeals require the permission of a judge of the Court of Appeal of Québec and are heard by that court. An application for permission to appeal a decision must be made within 30 days of the date of the Tribunal’s decision.
If the judge gives permission to appeal, the party must present additional documents to the Court of Appeal to ask for a different decision.
The rules of the Court of Appeal of Québec provide that each party must prepare an appeal brief, called a factum. This document outlines the facts of the case and the parties’ arguments in detail. Before the appeal hearing, the judges study the factum carefully.
To learn more, visit the “Civil matter questions” section on the website of the Court of Appeal of Quebec.
12. Enforcing a Decision
Enforcing a judgment (decision) means taking the necessary measures to have it respected. Decisions of the Tribunal that order someone to pay a sum of money are enforced in the same way as decisions of the Court of Québec or the Superior Court.
The losing party can decide to respect the judgment voluntarily. This is called voluntary execution. But if this does not happen, certain measures are available to oblige a party to respect the judgment. This is called forced execution. For example, the person who won the case can do an examination after judgment, which means she can ask the losing party questions about any property and income of that party that could be seized to pay money owed.
Orders to Pay Money
This type of judgment can be executed from the time the judgment is filed with the clerk of the Court of Québec, or with the clerk of the Superior Court. (The court where a judgment is filed depends on the amount of money awarded. The Superior Court deals with bigger amounts of money than the Court of Québec.)
In the case of a forced execution, there is generally a seizure of furniture, land or wages. The party who wants to seize must get a “writ of seizure”, a formal authorization from the court. The writ must be approved by the clerk of the Court of Québec or the Superior Court, depending on the case. The clerk is said to “issue” the writ. There are fees to pay for the writ and carrying out the seizure.
But be careful! There are rules about what can be seized. A party cannot seize all of the opposing party’s property, even if a judgment has ordered the payment of a large sum of money.
There are judgments other than orders to pay money. For example, a judgment can order someone to stop harassing the plaintiff or to give Mr. X his job back.
These judgments can be executed as soon as the time limit to appeal expires. In some cases, the Tribunal can order that a decision be executed sooner. Still, if the case is appealed, the Court of Appeal can suspend the execution of the judgment.
Failure to respect a judgment of the Tribunal is considered to be contempt of court, an offence that can lead to up to a year in prison and/or a fine of $50,000.