What is the difference between a court and a human rights tribunal?

While courts and human rights tribunals are both empowered to deal with discrimination issues, the circumstances are often quite different. Courts primarily deal with discrimination as part of a larger matter, such as when it comes in the face of discrimination. Making a legal claim in court requires a specific ‘cause of action,’ or a wrongdoing that has been committed, and the person that has been wronged needs to be able to show financial damages. A termination may have happened as a result of discrimination, and lawyers will often help their clients claim for additional damages either under human rights law, or to punish the employer, but these amounts are certainly not guaranteed. 

A human rights tribunal, on the other hand, is structured precisely to hear individual complaints about human rights and discrimination. Some tribunals, such as in Ontario and British Columbia, are ‘direct access’ and allow individuals to make a complaint without legal representation (although having a lawyer is always advisable). Other provinces require legal representation. These tribunals usually have a lower cost of entry than courts, and are tailored to assess and award damages for discrimination. They may award monetary damages but also order employers to amend policies, participate in training, and other remedies. Unlike courts, some tribunals can also order employers to pay additional damages for injury to a person’s dignity. 

There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, and an employment lawyer will walk you through which venue will be right for you.