Ontario's 1.6 million condo residents have a new avenue for settling disputes in their buildings and neighbourhoods. Recently, the province launched its first online tribunal to help resolve the complaints that arise in 10,000 condo corporations.
The Condominium Authority Tribunal (CAT) provides direct access to mediators and adjudicators in a stepped process that begins with a $25 fee, although to start, it is only looking at issues related to accessing condo records.
In its first week, only two disputes had been registered with the tribunal.
It is the first online-only tribunal in the province but it's a model that other agencies might consider in the future, said Tom Wright, chair of the Condominium Authority of Ontario (CAO), which oversees the new system.
The CAO will also be administering a new training program to condo directors.
Only 2,700 of the nearly 10,000 condominium corporations have registered with the CAO to date. But all condo corporations in the province will be required to register by Dec. 31.
The Toronto Star spoke to Wright about how the tribunal and training will work. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Q. Why does Ontario need this kind of tribunal?
A. There was a need for an easier, more cost-effective way to resolve disputes that arose in a condo corporations and communities.
One of the features that will make it more accessible is that it's exclusively online. You're not bound by office hours or required to show up at a hearing.
It is more cost-effective in terms of resolving disputes as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Q. How were condo disputes handled in the past?
A. Typically these disputes would require someone taking the matter to the courts, often a costly and lengthy avenue. Sometimes a mediator would be brought in, but that would require the agreement of all parties and, again, it could be costly. The fact that a condo corporation would have to pay means the owners are footing the bill.
Q. What kind of issues will the tribunal handle?
A. To begin, the tribunal will only deal with condo record complaints. That will likely be expanded to other kinds of disputes in the future but we don't know what kind yet.
Q. How does it work?
A. It's a three-phase process. The first stage is negotiation. It costs $25 and gives users access to the system, allowing them to try and resolve the dispute themselves. If you are unable to do that, you move onto Stage 2: mediation. That costs $50. A tribunal mediator then becomes involved in trying to resolve the matter. If that still doesn't work, you move on to Stage 3: adjudication for a $125 fee. At that point, a tribunal member, who is a different individual than the mediator, decides how the dispute will be resolved.
We recommend that condo owners try and resolve common issues on their own. In the case of noise complaints, for example, the CAO recommends occupants note the date and time of the noise to help identify the source and contact their condo board directly; then follow-up in writing. The CAO provides templates for letters and emails.
Q. If someone takes a dispute to Stage 2, which is mediation, is the other party compelled to come to the table?
A. No. But the dispute can still move through the process. Notice is given all along the way to the other party. If they choose not to attend, the matter can still proceed to a decision. It's a bit like a court where someone issues a claim and the other side doesn't show up. The court can still make a decision. The same thing applies here. Otherwise, it wouldn't work. People would just assume that if they didn't show up or didn't participate, they wouldn't be subject to a tribunal decision.
Q. The tribunal is only resolving records disputes to begin with. What does this mean?
A. This ties into what are being called core records. Those include the standard declarations, bylaws, budgets, amendments, financial statements, meeting minutes and reserve fund studies. If a condo owner wants access to those records and it is not provided, they can move to the tribunal process.
Q. How long before you move past this pilot phase to resolving other kinds of disputes?
A. That's up to the government. I can't give you a date, but the intention is clear this will be an ongoing process. This is so new we're going to be learning a lot of things. Once we have tackled this area it opens up a lot of possibilities.
Q. What kind of disputes would never come to the tribunal?
A. Anything to do with a breach of the Condo Act would be beyond the tribunal's jurisdiction. Things like directors failing to disclose an interest in a contract would be beyond the condo authority's mandate.
Q. Do mediators and adjudicators do the same job and what are their qualifications?
A. We have recruited and trained 15 people who are known as tribunal members. They have a range of experience in mediation, adjudication, condo law and some who have lived in condos. These are experienced people who know how tribunals work but also have an interest in following a new path in terms of the online nature of this tribunal.
It's important to know that members, who have mediated disputes at the Stage 2 part of the system, would not be adjudicating the same dispute at Stage 3. You have a fresh person looking at it.
Q. The CAO is also in charge of a new training program for condo board directors. How will that work?
A. Any director who is elected to a condo board after Nov. 1 will be obligated to take the free, online training within six months of their election. The training, which focuses on the obligations of directors and background on the Condo Act, can be done in under five hours during the six-month period.
Q. Volunteering on a condo board is already time-consuming, who will want the job with this additional required demand?
A. There will be people who genuinely want to do this. It's a question that has come up, but at the end of the day, the feedback we've had from more than 300 people who actually did the training was that it is helpful and positive.