People may be back in the office and unmasked at the grocery store, but it’s not business as usual for Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board.

The Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) was founded in 2007 to provide dispute resolution under the Residential Tenancies Act, but following a five-month moratorium on eviction hearings from March to August 2020 -- approximately 25,000 prospective hearing slots were lost during this period -- the organization is facing a debilitating backlog.

Janet Deline, a spokesperson for the tribunal, tells STOREYS it’s currently taking around seven to eight months from the time an application is filed to the time a hearing is scheduled. This is a far cry from the 25 to 30 day business days the process is meant to take, according to the Tribunals Ontario website.

On top of the backlog, Deline notes that Tribunals Ontario is taking steps to “modernize" and "adapt many of its core services.” For instance, the organization is moving away from in-person hearings.

READ: LTB Digital-First Hearings Unfair to Vulnerable Tenants, Advocates Say

“The realities of the global pandemic have accelerated the delivery of online services throughout the private and public sectors, and this is also true at Tribunals Ontario,” says Deline. As part of a new digital strategy, Tribunals Ontario has launched an online case management portal, and made written, telephone, and video proceedings the default hearing format.

“Virtual hearings have increased access to justice for many individuals who experience barriers with an in-person hearing model,” says Deline. “The time to travel, time off work, and childcare expenses are often reported as challenges to accessing justice. Virtual hearings can be cost-efficient for parties with legal representation, reducing cost billed by legal representation for travel or waiting time at a hearing centre.”

Although it is still possible to request an in-person hearing through the LTB -- to do so, applicants can submit an Accommodation Request Form -- Deline says of the 107,000 applications received by Tribunals Ontario in 2021 and 2022, only 300 applicants requested an in-person hearing. “The conclusion to be drawn from these numbers is the vast majority of parties appearing before Tribunals Ontario’s boards and tribunals prefer the convenience of the remote virtual format.”

Despite a recent uptick of media coverage, Geordie Dent, the Executive Director of the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations (FMTA), says the months-long wait time isn't new as far as tenants are concerned.

“The Landlord and Tenant Board -- it's a very landlord-heavy system. And now landlords are complaining because they're facing the delays tenants have been facing for years,” he says.

Dent adds it’s not just lengthy wait times stacking the odds against tenants.

“When tenants talk about their experiences of LTB, it's a nightmare. The system is geared towards people that can afford legal counsel, it's geared towards people who can treat this stuff like their job,” he says. “Tenants don't really have any of that. They don't have lawyers and they're often having to take time off from their work to attend these hearings. The LTB doesn’t have hearings on weekends and they don't have hearings past 4 or 5 p.m.

“Tenants really struggle with these applications, specifically now. A lot of times they’re trying to deal with an acute issue -- it could be money they're owed, it could be trying to get repairs done -- and then having justice come about six months really doesn't help with those issues.”

Given the perceived issues with the system -- “it's so slow, expensive, and complex,” says Dent -- the FMTA advises tenants to do what they can to resolve matters outside of the LTB.

“The number one thing we recommended tenants do is just say no,” says Dent. “A lot of times landlords will tell renters they have to pay money or they have to move or they can't do something that they're allowed to do.”

For matters that remain unresolved by landlord-tenant communication, the FMTA runs a hotline to help tenants understand their legal rights when renting, as well as their options for legal recourse. Pro Bono Ontario, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, and Legal Aid Ontario offer similar services.

“We often recommend trying to use an intermediary,” says Dent. “For example, if you're having a repair issue, you might be able to call city bylaw officers. Or if a landlord is threatening to lock you out, you might be able to call the Rental Housing Enforcement Unit to help."

In some cases, the FMTA might recommend organizing. This is echoed by Jessica Bell, Member of Provincial Parliament for University—Rosedale.

“If you're a tenant and part of a bigger building, I strongly recommend joining or forming a tenants’ association,” she says. “The strongest tenants' associations regularly door knock, give out flyers, and host meetings. They should focus on the bread-and-butter issues and work together with everyone in the building to get what they need through dialogue and conversation with the landlord.”

For instance, poor building maintenance and above-guideline rent increases are two issues Bell believes are better approached in large numbers.

She adds if the dispute has to do with rent arrears, the Toronto Rent Bank exists to provide rent help. To enact larger change, she urges tenants to air their grievances about the LTB to the Attorney General of Ontario, Minister Doug Downey.

“Everyone should get their fair day at the tribunal,” she says. “Ontario needs to increase funding so we do not have to wait years for our issue to be resolved.”

For the time being, those utilizing the LTB should be mindful an in-person hearing is not implied, but can be requested. For anyone without access to a phone or computer, the LTB is currently running a phone pilot program, through which applicants can loan out a basic cell phone or access a prepaid phone plan free of charge.

Finally, Tribunals Ontario will consider requests to expedite hearings on a case-by-case basis. Applicants can submit their case for consideration using a Request to Extend or Shorten Time form, and if approved, priority cases are heard within a few weeks.

“We are actively working to improve our service standards and modernize our operations to provide more timely and effective service to our users,” says Deline. “This includes working to increase the number of staff and adjudicators at the LTB and in our Contact Centre so we can resolve existing backlogs more quickly.”