From Part 1 of our Intro to Judicial Review series, we learned that judicial reviews are a review by a judge of a decision by an administrative tribunal. But what is an administrative tribunal, and what kinds of decisions do they make?

By Emily Zarychta, Articling Student and Holly Popenia, Community Law Program Lawyer

Our daily lives are affected by all kinds of different laws. How much you pay for rent, whether you get income assistance from the government for your disability, and whether you were discriminated against because of your personal characteristics are all questions that have answers in legal acts and regulations. Traditionally, when you think of someone making a decision about a law, you think of a judge. The reality is that many legal decisions are made by administrative decision-makers who have been given the power to make these decisions by the government outside of a court.

What are Administrative Tribunals?

  • They are specialized, legal decision-makers

Administrative tribunals are specialized, legal decision-making bodies. Because the government has so many different laws and regulations to manage, the government creates different administrative tribunals to make decisions about specific laws. For example, the BC Human Rights Tribunal makes decisions under BC’s Human Rights Code. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal makes decisions under BC’s Workers Compensation Act.

Tribunals are made up of people appointed by the government to decide legal issues. While tribunal decision-makers are not judges in the formal sense, they can make legal decisions about their specific areas of expertise.

  • Administrative decision-makers have many different names

Tribunals are just one type of administrative decision-maker. There are many other names for administrative decision-makers including boards, bodies, agencies, and commissions. The Residential Tenancy Branch is also an administrative decision-maker.

  • They are created by law and can only do what that law says

The government uses legislation, called an enabling statute, to create the administrative tribunal and to set out what it is allowed to do. Tribunals are only allowed to do what is set out in their enabling statute, or else they risk their decisions being overturned by a court for doing things outside of their powers. Despite being created by the government, administrative tribunals are independent from the government, which means they are supposed to be free from bias.

  • They can make their own rules about how to make decisions

Tribunals generally have the power to make their own rules about how they will make their decisions. Although these rules can be found in the enabling statute, some tribunals also have a separate set of procedural rules. For example, the BC Human Rights Tribunal has Rules of Practice and Procedure; the Residential Tenancy Branch has Rules of Procedure; and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal has a Manual of Rules of Practice and Procedure.

  • Sometimes they look like a court

Some administrative tribunals are adjudicative, which means they hear evidence and arguments and make legal decisions in a way similar to courts. This type of tribunal has rules and procedures about witnesses, documentary evidence and legal arguments. The BC Human Rights Tribunal, the Residential Tenancy Branch and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal are examples of adjudicative tribunals.

  • Sometimes they are just a person in an office making decisions

On the other end of the spectrum, some administrative bodies are informal and not like a court at all, making decisions using only document submissions and evidence from the parties. Decisions about whether you are eligible for certain benefits like Employment Insurance and Persons with Disabilities (PWD) assistance, for example, can be made without a hearing by an administrative decision-maker.

How do Administrative Tribunals affect me?

Administrative Tribunals affect us in many ways, from your workers’ compensation claim to your housing dispute with your landlord to whether you will be detained under the Mental Health Act. Administrative tribunals provide easier, cheaper, and more specialized resolutions to different situations, compared to the time and costs related to going to court. Many users of Tribunals are self-represented. The average person is far more likely to appear before, and be impacted by, an administrative tribunal than a court.

Given that tribunals have replaced courts as the most common place for people to seek justice and enforce their rights, your current or future legal rights may be tied to an administrative tribunal. Impactful administrative bodies include workers’ compensation boards, residential tenancy boards, labour boards, arbitration boards, human rights tribunals, pension commissions, professional bodies, immigration and refugee boards, etc. These types of decision-makers can decide matters about your eviction, your employment, your human rights, your status, and more. Administrative bodies have become an essential part of protecting our civic rights.

Where does Judicial Review fit in?

Judicial review comes into play after you get a decision from an administrative tribunal. If you get a decision from an administrative decision-maker that you think is wrong, you may be able to have that decision reviewed in a court by a judge. For more information on judicial reviews, see our Intro to Judicial Review –  Part 1: What is Judicial Review?

How can CLAS help?

CLAS assistance at the tribunal level

CLAS may be able to provide assistance with your administrative tribunal hearing.

The BC Human Rights Clinic at CLAS provides free legal services to people who need help with a provincial human rights complaint at the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

  • Mental Health Review Boardreviews involuntary detentions and psychiatric treatment in or through a designated facility under the B.C. Mental Health Act.
  • Criminal Code Review Board – holds hearings to make and review dispositions (orders) where individuals charged with criminal offenses have been given verdicts of not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder or unfit to stand trial on account of mental disorder, by a court.

CLAS may be able to help with Mental Health Review Board hearings and Criminal Code Review Board hearings. See our “Mental Health Law” page for more information.

CLAS assistance after you receive a decision from a tribunal

CLAS may also be able to help you after you receive a decision from the following tribunals. See our “Get Legal Help” page for more information. For help at the tribunal level with these tribunals, find an advocate near you on the PovNet Welfare Advocate List.