A Season in Hell: self-reps speak about the Ontario License Appeal Tribunal

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If you buy a newly-built home in Ontario and find construction defects in it, you may be refused compensation by Ontario’s monopoly warranty programme, Tarion. You may then end up as a self-represented litigant (SRL) fighting Tarion and the builder at the License Appeal Tribunal (LAT) to try to get your home fixed.

Most new home buyers can’t afford $450-$800 per hour to hire an experienced lawyer, let alone technical experts. Even for those who could afford $5,000 or $20,000 in legal fees, they also lose time away from work, and go through the anxiety of a complex legal battle, with no way of knowing what the outcome or final costs will be. Most homeowners self-represent. They lose over 80% of the time.

Consumers say “self”-represented, lawyers and judges say “un”-represented. To consumers, the latter implies no one is representing their side, hence the preferred term is self-rep, or SRL.

How can imbalances in the system be righted? How can these problems of real or perceived unfairness be fixed?

Bill Gates once said: Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” I hope the focus group I conducted this month, with a summary below, will encourage legal authorities to listen to consumers and improve access to justice.

I spoke to eight self-represented litigants who’d experienced the LAT, and asked them seven questions. The group of 8 were from varied educational, language and ethnic backgrounds, represented a wide range in age and family size, and were from different parts of Ontario. Some of the cases I followed personally over the last 7 years. I decided to indicate the participants anonymously, as consumers #1-8, since some had to sign non-disclosure agreements, and others feared consequences from Tarion or builders for speaking out.

Here’s a summary of the results:

Question #1:  Do you think you got justice at the LAT?  Explain.

All 8 participants said no. Reasons ranged from the imbalance of power with two lawyers (builder and Tarion) against the homeowner, and delays caused by engineers, lawyers and adjudicators scheduling their time. Two consumers said they won at the LAT, but later found out that Tarion is not obliged to comply with LAT orders: enforcement is not within our jurisdiction”, consumer #5 was told.

Two homeowners gave up their case due to motions and high legal costs, one gave up after paying $5,000 for one day, another paid $2,500 for one day and feared running out of money if this continued. Another was asked for a $40,000 retainer with the law firm he was considering using, otherwise they wouldn’t take his case. Tarion refused to give him a Decision Letter, so he couldn’t appeal to the LAT.  Consumers can’t use legal fees as a tax-deductible expense as corporations can, so this money comes off their kitchen table.

Why would the LAT hear cases but not enforce their decisions? From a common sense perspective this makes no sense, and it’s also a waste of taxpayer money which funds the LAT.

Consumer #2 was told the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision of Pintea vs. John (regarding a self-rep’s right to get an explanation of the rules and procedures) was “irrelevant”. He also felt the teleconference format chosen for his hearing put him at a disadvantage.

Consumer #5 felt the adjudicators in his multiple hearings were courteous, but the process was too complex for self-reps.

Homeowner #1 said he and his wife were bullied and humiliated by the adjudicator over a 2-year period, and filed a complaint about this, which was dismissed by the same adjudicator.

Why should the same adjudicator act as both judge and jury regarding their own conduct? How objective is this?

All 8 participants cited the imbalance of power between experienced lawyers and self-reps, a 2-against-1 where consumers are out-smarted and out-maneuvered in procedural knowledge and cross-examination skills by both Tarion’s and the builder’s lawyers.

Bill 166, passed in late 2017 by the Liberals, now says consumers don’t have to prove the cause of the defects, only show symptoms. But this creates a further imbalance, since Tarion and builders will certainly get their experts and lawyers to present technical evidence to bolster their own cases, while the consumer will have nothing. This is sending the homeowner into the battlefield with no ammunition.

Consumer #4 said she felt intimidated facing 7 opponents in a pre-hearing, with Tarion lawyers and the builder’s lawyer, and their various assistants and experts all facing her. She felt this was an intimidation tactic, and it prevented her from keeping her composure and making her best case. She was also told she couldn’t bring a friend into the pre-hearing (now called a “case conference”) as moral support. Why? Tarion objected to it, and the adjudicator complied.

Consumer #8 said her husband was forbidden from assisting her during the chief cross-examination because Tarion said her husband was not specifically on title as owner, even though the couple co-owned the home under family law. The adjudicator complied with Tarion’s request.

Consumer #8 said that although Tarion and the builder were able to dismiss her claim for a heating defect using a warranty technicality (late reporting), the LAT should have forced Tarion, as builder regulator, to get the builder to fix the defect. She had to proceed to Provincial court to get this problem addressed, creating another burden on the taxpayer and the busy court system.

2. Did the adjudicator explain legal concepts clearly to you? ie: rules, forms, asking non-leading questions, use of case law, burden of proof…?

Consumer #1 was not allowed to call a witness he’d subpoena-ed because he was told he’d used the wrong form, even though he had served all the documents properly.  This is a witness he found critical to his case.

Homeowner #3 faxed her case from a Staples office outlet to the LAT management indicating the number of pages, but later was told the LAT never received some of the pages indicated on the covering sheet, so she was not allowed to use that information in her case.

Homeowner #8 was told her witness with 40 years experience in installing heating systems was excluded from giving testimony at Tarion’s request, because he needed a specific government of Ontario license number to do so.

Several consumers #2, 7, 8, said they had trouble with the confused and sometimes contradictory state of the LAT case law re Tarion appeals. Some adjudicators told self-reps #1, 2, and 7 that case law is “not really relevant” at the LAT.

Two consumers said the opponents delivered over 100 pages of case law to them, in one case on the eve of the hearing. This they found an intimidation tactic. Without legal training, several consumers #1, 2, and 7, who spent many hours preparing their cases, had trouble deciding what was relevant or what applied to their own case. Law students take years to master this, so it seems unreasonable to expect self-reps to do it within a few weeks.

3) Did the LAT staff help you answering questions you had about your hearing?

All interviewees mentioned there is no one at the LAT to explain the Rules of Procedure (which are designed for legal professionals, not consumers). The LAT administrative staff kept repeating “we can’t give legal advice”. This is one of the most frustrating recurring themes SRLs voiced during these discussions. If having a lawyer is essential to justice, why is self-representation allowed at all? Why not provide independent mediation for self-reps?

Or, why isn’t there a duty counsel on hand to answer legal or procedural questions? Wouldn’t this cost less than letting a hearing drag on for 2 years, as in the case of consumers 1, 2, and 7?

4) Did you get transcripts of your hearing when requested?

Homeowners 1, 2 and 7 said that some recordings of their hearings were “missing” from the official record they asked for, and LAT staff couldn’t account for these gaps, other than to say it was possibly “inadvertence” by adjudicators or staff. Two homeowners said they felt the gaps were deliberate, since this was critical information for their cases. Their efforts to get to the bottom of this were unsuccessful.

How can a hearing be appealed if there’s no accurate record of it? We understand the LAT’s oversight body, SLASTO, is now considering eliminating all recordings of LAT hearings. Who would benefit from that?

5) What other experiences can you share which might help make this process more balanced and fair for self-rep litigants?

Several homeowners struggled with trying to formulate non-leading questions in cross-examining their witnesses; one said she found out too late she was allowed to ask leading questions to the opposing side’s witnesses. She felt in a straight-jacket all through the hearing because she thought this restrictive rule applied to all questioning.

Four of the eight consumers said they were rattled and put off balance by frequent interruptions by opposing counsel due to objections. Two of the consumers felt adjudicators always allowed the objections of Tarion/builders, but none of theirs. This contributed to their feeling of not being heard or understood.

Several consumers had difficultly getting expert witnesses or engineers to testify for them against Tarion.  Consumers 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8 experienced this. Experts are reluctant to testify against a powerful government monopoly and builders, since these corporations are the source of future business for them, but they are unlikely to ever see the homeowner again.

Consumer # 1 said some of his well-meaning actions were misinterpreted by the adjudicator, who took them as a sign of disrespect. For example, when he tied to give documents to the opposing counsel during the hearing, he walked behind the adjudicator’s podium, thinking this was more respectful than walking in front. But the adjudicator took this as a sign of disrespect and sharply admonished him in front of all present. When he used the term “Madame ..X.. ” to speak to her instead of “Madam Vice-Chair”, she took this as an affront to her status, and sharply admonished him again in front of all present. His attempts to confer with his wife during difficult moments in the hearing were also interpreted by the adjudicator as disruptive and disresepctful, while lawyers do this all the time. Shouting at and admonishing a self-rep in front of the opposing parties weakens their resolve and is highly intimidating.

Seven of the eight consumers said the process felt unfair, complex, and out of balance.. Some of the reasons are already outlined above. Four consumers said they felt the adjudicator reacted more favourably toward the parties represented by counsel and showed more respect and collegiality toward the lawyers than the self-reps. They often used terminology and referred to statutes and case law which are foreign to even the best prepared self-reps, terms like “estoppel”, for example.

Several of the participants explained that they had much more at stake than the lawyers, adjudicators and LAT staff. A new home is the biggest investment they make in their lives, while to a lawyer this is just another case. They’re paid to win, to get claims dismissed for their client, not get homes fixed or deliver justice.

The reason the legal profession was created in the first place was to remove the client’s emotional involvement, and focus only on the facts and the law. But self-rep can’t do that: they have a very personal stake in the trial.  They return each day to a newly built home with construction defects; they want to get what they paid for and are entitled to by law, but they’re losing time and money trying to do this in a game with rules which are foreign to them. Like sending ordinary citizens into an operating room for a heart transplant, with no training.

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I hope this informal focus group can be the beginning of a dialogue between end-users and service providers. The most dissatisfied customers of the legal business are those who know what needs to improve. There are many suggestions here which don’t require a change in legislation or years to implement. But unfortunately the the self-rep still seems to be viewed with suspicion by the legal profession.

We’d all hire the best lawyer on the planet if we could afford it, since that would greatly improve our chances of winning. But the cost of lawyer-ing and the time spent doing it shouldn’t exceed the size of the problem.  The playing field has to be fair and balanced, and the consumer shouldn’t feel the goalposts and the rules are being shifted to his disadvantage.

Legal reform and regulatory bodies should include the victims of the system in their policy discussions in order to get it right going forward. Otherwise we’re creating more problems, overburdening the taxpayer and the court system, creating more financial and emotional stress for families, and we’re still Venus talking to Mars.

Anyone who’d like to do a follow-up focus group, or a discussion about this one, please get in touch by posting a comment on my blog. Lawyers, judges, and law students welcome. Thank you to the participants, and my readers.

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A Road to Nowhere: Premier Wynne’s faulty bill 166

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The Liberal government’s Bill 166, the “Strengthening Protection for Ontario Consumer’s Act” unfortunately adds to a decade of broken promises on new home buyer protection in Ontario.

The bill received zero support from any of the Opposition parties when it was pushed through the Legislature in December 2017 by the Liberal majority. It was extensively critiqued for months by Opposition MPPs, the Ministry Critics and consumer advocates. It doesn’t fix the decades of problems consumers have had with dispute resolution, conflicts of interest, and lack of transparency of this government monopoly, Tarion.

In December 2016 Premier Wynne was given a clear road-map for solving these problems: the Tarion review conducted by justice Cunningham after a year of research and consultation, costing the taxpayer $750,000.

But without explanation which the public deserved, Wynne decided to ignore most of the judge’s 37 recommendations, siding with industry and Tarion interests.

Leading up to the bill, her government put together a consultation group skewed toward the building industry and Tarion, and limited the scope of discussions to favour a pre-determined outcome which ignored most of the judge’s recommendations. I was asked as the only consumer advocate to volunteer to participate in this consultation. I voiced clear objections to the lack of consumer input and the limited scope of discussions.  To no avail.

Bill 166 leaves Tarion largely intact. It does not include consumer advocates on Tarion’s board, (don’t dare touch our builder board members!, warned the builder lobbyists), and it gives builders their own regulator, with minimal independent oversight.

The most frustrating issue for consumers over the years has been dispute resolution. This bill does nothing to fix that, and may even make things worse.

Here’s why:

– The existing dispute resolution process is not transparent or balanced and seems to favour Tarion’s and the builder’s interests. There is no clear procedure or transparency in the claims process, or reliable builder track record.

– The License Appeal Tribunal is maintained as the forum for dispute resolution. But consumers can’t afford experienced lawyers, and Tarion and builders always use lawyers to fight claims.

– Making the internal ombudsperson mandatory is no help. This office has existed at Tarion since 2009, and doesn’t get involved in dispute resolution. So what good is it? A time-waster and source of extreme frustration for anyone who’s had experience with it. This is one of the red herrings in the bill, giving consumers the impression something is being improved, while it is not.

– Bill 166 provides for oversight of Tarion by the Auditor-General, but this is insufficient. The Liberals refused to include oversight by the Ombudsman of Ontario or applicability of Freedom of Information Act in the bill. Without explanation. Who will oversee whether claims are handled fairly, or have been improperly dismissed or inadequately compensated, and who will assure these are listed on the builder’s track record?

– The “AA” model which Tarion falls under, an “Administrative Authority”, has far too weak oversight. Responsibility for consumer protection is a government responsibility, but it’s being out-sourced to arms-length agencies. Why would anyone be in favour of less transparency and accountability? Monopolies enjoy their monopoly power, government likes to avoid liability, and industries like to control their industries. But who’s protecting the consumer?

– Bill 166 says consumers won’t have to prove the underlying cause of defects in their new homes. But Tarion and builders certainly will have this proof, with the legal and technical resources they have. This is like sending the consumer into the battlefield with no ammunition. Imagine the consumer saying my basement is leaking, and Tarion and the builder saying that’s normal, here’s the technical report which proves it. End of story. How does this make the process more balanced and fair?

Tarion is still telling consumers they can go the LAT (License Appeal Tribunal) to have disputes resolved, while omitting to say consumers lose 90% of these cases. Tarion’s CEO says this is an informal consumer-friendly forum, while consumers say its like sending them to the slaughterhouse, financially and emotionally. The taxpayer also subsidizes Tarion’s dispute resolution by funding the court system.  This is unfair and unnecessary, given the $400+ million Tarion has in its coffers.

Premier Wynne has been asked these questions at her townhall meetings within the last few months. She says she’s recognized the problems and fixed them. No one is fooled by this. Asked why no one voted for bill 166, except her own party, she clearly sensed a danger zone, and diverted to a softball question from a young person who asked about getting into politics. (Brampton townhall, Dec. 13, 2017).

It seems the Wynne government thought they could fool us with this fake “consumer protection” bill.

Bill 166 should be repealed and replaced by the party who wins the up-coming provincial election in June 2018. Consultations should be re-done to include a meaningful balance of consumers and a full discussion of the 37 recommendations of the judge’s Tarion review.

As a political insider said last month, this bill is a nothing burger.

A half-baked one at that.

#RepealReplaceBill166 

#EndTarionMonopolyNow

 

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To consumer advocates: thank you for your work in 2017 re Tarion/LAT

As 2017 closes, I want to thank all the consumers and consumer advocates who’ve worked so tirelessly for years to get the Ontario new home warranty legislation fixed.  Everyone has contributed in their own special way, based on time and resources available. You’ve made a big impact on getting this broken system fixed.

I once asked the Minister of Consumer Services this question: if building lobbyists and Tarion are looking after their own interests, who’s looking after the consumer’s? It seems no one. We expect government to do this, but in my 7-year experience, they seem to understand the builder’s/Tarion’s perspective better than the consumer’s. There are few bona fide consumer advocates at policy-making levels, or none at all. For years, builder lobby organizations, Tarion executives, some condo lawyers, and ministry officials have tried to tell us they’re all consumer advocates. About as credible as the fox saying he’s protecting the chicken coop.

2018 may present new opportunities for a new bill which actually, finally, protects consumers. If the current Liberal government is not re-elected in June 2018, there may be a chance to seriously amend bill 166 to include more of the judge’s review recommendations, or bring new legislation which is consumer-focused.

Premier Wynne, at her town hall meetings these last two months, has been driving the theme of “fairness”. However she seemed irritated by questions about Tarion, on Nov. 20 and Dec. 13. She side-stepped policy questions put to her, and responded with – I’ve already spoken to “you”, I’ve already answered this, we’ve fixed the problems, speak to my staff, …. next question. This deflection reinforces the impression there’s something to hide in how the new legislation was arrived at. Such as stacking the consultations in favour of the industry and Tarion, and limiting the scope of discussions to produce the government’s desired outcome.

If Premier Wynne is really concerned about fairness, why wouldn’t she appoint a corporate monitor at Tarion – right now – reporting to the ministry to oversee fairness in dispute resolution until the new legislation takes effect in 2020? Three more years of waiting is unfair to consumers suffering under the current system. The judge’s review cited conflicts of interest at Tarion, yet consumers are supposed to just grin and bear it until 2020, while paying for this mandatory warranty under Ontario law. Leaving consumers vulnerable with no one on their side is not fair. The government not taking immediate action to protect consumers, knowing full well the existing conflicts of interest, is doubly unfair, even irresponsible.

To all those of you who’ve attended town halls, the judge’s consultations, contacted or visited your MPPs, or joined discussions on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, you’ve made a big impact this year. Thank you. If we can’t get our own home defects fixed, or have been gagged by non-disclosure agreements, we can still help family and friends who are the new home buyers of the future.

Bill 166 may not be final; its failure to protect consumers may not be fatal; your work and determination will help fix the problems. Thank you to all, and best wishes for a healthy, safe, and consumer-friendly 2018.

 

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(Quotation from Winston Churchill)

In 2018, please join the discussion on my second Twitter account: @ONTConsmrRights

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Another access to justice “ticking time bomb”. Why is the government not fixing this?

slide-newyorker-113454                                                             (Cartoon from The New Yorker magazine)

 

One step forward, five steps back

At the highest levels of the legal profession, alarm bells have been ringing for years about the growing access to justice crisis for ordinary middle-class people who can’t afford the high hourly cost of lawyers to resolve everyday legal problems. Access to justice in Canada has been described by senior officials as “abysmal”.

Lawyers, judges, and lawmakers have all been urged to be part of the solution, not add to existing problems.

Premier Wynne, her Attorney-General Mr. Naqvi, and Minister of Consumer Services, Ms. MacCharles, seem to have not received the memo.

Here’s a timeline on an access to justice ticking time bomb the Wynne/McGuinty government has known about for decades, has publicly acknowledged, but failed to fix.

1) After years of complaints from consumers that they can’t get their new home construction defects resolved through the government’s monopoly, Tarion Warranty Corporation, Premier Wynne ordered a review of this arms-length agency of government in Nov. 2015.

2) The year-long review was conducted by a well-respected judge, consulted broadly with stakeholders, cost $750,000, and was released in 2017.  It found “conflicts of interest”, “fundamental problems” with Tarion. It advised 37 changes, the main one to abolish the monopoly and bring in a competitive model for new home warranties.

3) The government brushed aside most of the review, without explanation, especially the key advice to abolish Tarion’s monopoly.

4) A consultation group was set up by the Ministry of Consumer Services, and was presented with a different framework than the judge recommended. The participants were stacked toward Tarion, those with business ties to Tarion, and members of the legal profession. Government lawyers were also present. Much of the judge’s key advice was ruled out of scope, for unexplained reasons.

5) The government introduced new legislation, bill 166, in November 2017, which gave the industry and Tarion what they wanted: to keep the monopoly Tarion, and give builders their own regulator. Consumers were left wondering where’s the consumer protection?

6) It seems we’re back now to where we started, a few baby steps forward, giant steps backward. Back to the Tarion in-house legal department protecting Tarion’s interests not the consumer’s, a monopoly with minimum oversight paying cushy executive salaries, the License Appeal Tribunal for disputes where the consumer loses 90% of the time, and the same internal ombudsperson reporting to Tarion, not perceived by the consumer as independent or impartial, and who avoids getting involved in warranty disputes.

What’s changed?

Now the consumer won’t have to prove the cause of the defects apparently, but Tarion and builders undoubtedly will, since their interests are to deny claims and limit the amount of pay-outs, leaving consumers with one of the conflicts of interest the judge highlighted.

In order to be credible and balanced, dispute resolution has to be independent, impartial, cost-efficient, and timely. Each party has to have equal access to independent experts, and fair and balanced advice.

Bill 166 seems totally inadequate and overly vague. It’s fake consumer protection, with the usual posturing about consumers first, fairness and transparency, without delivering much of any of it.

This bill may lead to more problems. There’s still no fair, timely, cost-efficient, and balanced dispute resolution process which is clearly defined for consumers to rely on. Telling consumers they don’t have to prove the cause of the defect, while the opponents most certainly will, is not leveling the playing field, but shifting the goalposts, giving the most vulnerable party a false sense of security.

This government will likely pass bill 166, despite important amendments urged by Opposition MPPs, consumers, and consumer groups this week in depositions to the Social Policy Committee.

Lawmakers had one chance in 40 years to fix the Tarion problem once and for all. The problems and solutions were objectively researched and presented to Premier Wynne, Ministers MacCharles and Naqvi, and government lawyers. Instead of fixing the problems, they seem to have left us with more access to justice misery.

 

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OPEN LETTER TO PREMIER WYNNE and MINISTER MACCHARLES: Re BILL 166, TARION

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Dear Premier Wynne and Minister MacCharles,

Bill 166 which you introduced last week to address years of complaints about the Tarion monopoly has largely ignored Justice Cunningham’s review released in March, 2017.

Concerns I raised on behalf of consumers in the consultations you conducted in June through August this year have all been brushed aside.

To reiterate, here are a few major consumer concerns with Bill 166:

  1. There is no clearly defined purpose statement in the bill. This has been an on-going concern with the former legislation, the ONHWPA. The judge’s 2017 review said new legislation should clearly state the consumer protection intent of the act.  Bill 166 is called “Strengthening Protection for Ontario Consumers”, and includes concert ticket purchasers, who clearly don’t have the same risk profile, or anywhere near the long-standing history of complaints as new home buyers.
  2.   The judge’s #1 recommendation was the multi-provider model for new home warranties. You ruled this out of scope for the ministry consultations, providing no reason. It was clear during consultations that Tarion wanted to hold onto it’s monopoly. How does protecting Tarion’s monopoly protect consumers? You publicly stated, Premier Wynne, (April, 2013), “the days of monopolies are done.” You haven’t explained why this doesn’t apply to Tarion.
  3. The “modern transparency and accountability measures” you promised in March 2017 seem to be just one: the Auditor-General’s power to conduct audits. This isn’t nearly enough. It ignores consumer and Opposition MPP calls for oversight by the Ombudsman of Ontario, and applicability of the Freedom of Information and Registered Lobbyist Acts. What are your reasons for not including these? Bill 166 states (pg. 43) that Tarion fees passed on to consumers “are not public money“. Yet consumers see them as such: they are mandatory, passed on to consumers by builders, money which in turn funds the warranty. This is an indirect tax we are required by law to pay.  If not the public’s money, whose money is it?
  4. The Administrative Authority model you’ve chosen to continue has been critiqued for over a decade as “rowing and steering” at the same time, i.e, setting policy and moving it along with minimal checks and balances. Bill 166 brings consumers little proof  Tarion will act in the public interest. The judge’s review cited problems with a potential conflict in Tarion both protecting the warranty fund and deciding whether to pay out claims. This remains.
  5. Builders still have a heavy presence on Tarion’s board. Where is the mandatory consumer representation on the board, a major concern for over a decade?
  6.  To say (pg. 85) consumers don’t have to prove the cause of defects may seem positive, but there’s no assurance Tarion won’t use its legal department or financial resources to dismiss legitimate claims. Where is the transparency for consumers to find out if claims are handled in a fair and balanced way? The internal ombudsman, reporting to Tarion’s board, has not been perceived as balanced and impartial. Yet you chose to keep this position.  A compliance officer reporting to the ministry would have provided more independence and objectivity for consumers.
  7. You’ve changed the wording of a major consumer protection clause (section 47 (b) because you say it had to be made gender-neutral. This has unfortunately watered-down the consumer protection content of the original wording. Changing the words “defect in workmanship to “built in a skillful way” is much more vague and easier for lawyers to manipulate to their advantage.
  8. The License Appeal Tribunal has been preserved as the appeal mechanism for claims, despite a decade of concerns that homeowners lose over 90% of the cases.
  9. The regulation-making authority of Tarion has been maintained, (pg. ii), despite consumer concerns. The annual oversight fee Tarion pays to the ministry for its own oversight has also been maintained. Board composition requirements (pg. 8) also seem un-changed, with no consumer advocates required.

Premier Wynne and Minister MacCharles, as the only consumer advocate in your 11-person working group, I strongly and repeatedly voiced concerns about ignoring the judge’s review, limiting the scope of discussions, and weighting the participants to favour Tarion and industry interests. I am told, I was “heard“, but nothing was done.

Builders got what they wanted from this bill: their own regulatory authority. Tarion got what it wanted: to keep its powerful monopoly with minimal oversight. What meaningful protection did consumers get?

You say nothing will be implemented until at least 2020. Regulations will take even longer. What of the consumers struggling under the current weak legislation? This ignores the urgency of these problems and leaves consumers to deal with 40-year-old legislation which doesn’t protect them in the biggest investment they make in their lives. An over-priced concert ticket may be forgotten five years from now. A new home with unresolved defects may bring financial and emotional hardship which can last a lifetime.

Bill 166 needs significant amendments to gain credibility among Ontario’s new home buyers.

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B.M.C., Oct. 10, 2017

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Just out: opinion leaders urge Premier Wynne to implement judge’s 37 recommendations re Tarion monopoly

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Both critics of the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, MPP McDonell and MPP Gates have written to minister MacCharles, urging her to implement Justice Cunningham’s 37 recommendations in his Tarion Review, released five months ago.

The Premier has been vague about what the new legislation to be introduced this fall will contain. Amid all the talk of fairness and transparency, we still don’t know if the Premier will act in the public interest instead of political expediency, and the interests of big industry and Tarion.

What we do know is that Tarion has made it abundantly clear it doesn’t want to lose its monopoly, no surprises there. But ending the monopoly was the judge’s  #1 recommendation, upon which the other 36 were based and inter-connected.

It’s time for Premier Wynne to put words to action and implement the judge’s 37 recommendations in new legislation this fall. Consumers have waited 40 years for reforms to Tarion,  an “anomaly” model, in the judge’s words, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Now it’s time for real action.

Both letters of the Critics are posted below. Please take a moment to contact your local MPP to show your support for the Tarion Review and judge’s 37 recommendations. (Link and commentary on the review in previous posts on this blog.)

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Aug. 3, 2017 letter from McDonell to MacCharles re Tarion Review

 

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“A correct diagnosis is three-fourths of the remedy”. What’s next for the Tarion Review?

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We all know someone who’s struggled for years with a medical problem, trying to get a correct diagnosis, with no road map for a cure. As the quotation above puts it (Mahatma Gandhi), there’s no remedy without first a diagnosis.

With this analogy, many similarities come to mind with the recent review of the 40-year old government monopoly, Tarion Warranty Corporation.

For over a decade, consumers, consumer groups, MPPs, journalists, and two former Ombudsmen of Ontario have raised concerns about lack of transparency and accountability at Tarion, it’s loose oversight, monopoly status, and builder-facing culture.

Monopolies don’t like to be critiqued, that’s clear, or lose their market position, that’s clear too. The Tarion monopoly has been left largely un-touched for decades, with ministry officials content to say they’re “working with Tarion“.  Not overseeing, but working with.  Huge difference for consumer protection.

The long-awaited Tarion review, commissioned by the government in Nov. 2015, was finally released in March of 2017. It was conducted by a seasoned judge, Justice Douglas Cunningham, with the assistance of Deloitte Consultants, and held consultations for over a year, costing taxpayers about $750,000.

The judge conducted wide-ranging talks with builders, insurance industry executives, consumers and lawyers. He came to the conclusion the monopoly model should be discontinued in Ontario, and the competitive model used in other provinces should be implemented. This was his recommendation #1, upon which the other 36 were based.

The judge told consumers in mid-2016 that once his review was released, it would be in the hands of the government to do something with it. That’s where we are now.  Premier Wynne’s government has promised new legislation on Tarion this fall, but so far there’s been evasive communication about which of the 37 recommendations will be taken on board. One senses the political spin doctors in the background.

Some of the vague and contradictory information given to consumers so far is:

  • Premier Wynne said in e-mails to consumers that “Ontario …will move forward with the recommendations to further protect owners of newly built homes…” (14/06/17); (All of the 37?)
  • The Ombudsman of Ontario said the Ministry will move forward with “nine” recommendations to fix the dispute resolution process (12/07/17). We only see one in the government’s Terms of Reference for the consultation group it initiated (24/05/17);
  • This consultation group was provided with a list of items “out” of the discussion. The multi-provider model, recommendation #1, is one of them;
  • Some Liberal MPPs told their constituents the government will move forward with “many” of the judge’s recommendations, avoiding saying which ones;
  • Ministry officials told some consumers (28/07/17) that none of the 37 recommendations has been specifically ruled out, to date.

The only recommendation (#5) which seems to have already been taken on board by the government is the separation of the builder regulatory authority from the warranty authority.  Builder lobby groups seem content with this, saying  this would eliminate some conflicts of interest (28/03/17).  Many think this should have been done years ago.

It may serve the government’s interests to be vague about exactly what its plans are for the legislation this fall, keeping as many voters on side as possible during the pre-election period, and trying not to run afoul of top corporate donors.

If past experience with this government is any indication of what they’ll do, they may rule certain recommendations “out of scope” when the new legislation is introduced. They may also give the bill a sales-y title like “Putting Consumers First”, as in the case of Bill 59 earlier this year.

It comes as no surprise that Tarion is reluctant to lose it monopoly status, and is giving push-back to the judge’s review, especially recommendation #1.  Regarding the multi-provider model (recommendation #1), a senior Tarion official put it to me emphatically this way: “the judge was wrong!”

Were the year-long stakeholder consultations, the jurisdictional scans of other warranty programmes, and Deloitte consultants wrong too?

What’s clear to many consumers and journalists is Tarion doesn’t like scrutiny or critique of its policies. The fact that its CEO earns close to $1 million was revealed by an investigative journalist in October, 2016. New home buyers should have a right to see these salaries. They pay a fee to Tarion passed on by builders in the purchase price of the new home. Who benefits from keeping this compensation secret? Oversight by the Auditor-General alone is unlikely to fix the transparency and accountability problems.

To consumers reading the judge’s review, (posted on the ministry’s website), all 37 of the judge’s recommendations make sense, and would help increase protection for new home buyers.

For example, recommendation #22, based on the key recommendation #1, states: “Each warranty provider should be required to have an internal dispute resolution process in place to facilitate the resolution of disputes between new home owners and builders and an internal review process for its decisions.”

If you take a holistic approach in analyzing a complex problem and then prescribe a remedy, you don’t expect someone to implement your plan piecemeal. To do so may distort the overall outcome.

The problems of Tarion are complex and inter-related. To implement only a few of the judge’s recommendations may not fix the serious problems he uncovered in his review. To kick the can further down the road, taking more time and more money for research, will add to the suffering consumers are already experiencing with this out-of-date legislation.

If the serious problems the judge outlined – the conflicts of interest, transparency and accountability gaps, and imbalances in dispute resolution – are not solved by new legislation this fall, the doctor won’t be to blame, nor his diagnosis, nor the prescription not taken.

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Earl Shuman’s fight for truth and justice: why we’re thankful, why it’s even more important today

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Dr. Earl Shuman, 1951-2016.  Consumer advocate, dentist, proud family man

The last time I saw Earl Shuman was in a crowded, noisy, mid-town cafe, the kind of place he must have abhorred, being a long-time country resident, and recently retired. But it was the venue chosen by the journalist I had arranged for Earl to meet.

A front-page story and a major media investigation into his case is something Earl wanted to expose the injustice (the “fraud”, as he put it) which happened to him. After 27 years of fighting for truth and fairness, he wanted to change the system which had mercilessly crushed him. He had recently met a young couple he related to, who were experiencing some of the same problems he’d had, and he felt increased urgency to expose injustices and get the system fixed. So others wouldn’t suffer like he and his family.

In a nutshell, Earl’s case was this: he bought a new home, found construction defects in it, asked the Tarion Warranty Corporation to fix it under the government’s warranty, but after years of legal wrangling it was decided Earl was the builder since he’d supplied more than 25% of the overall value of the home. Even if the home had been under warranty, he was told he was out of time in reporting defects. No coverage. A dentist by profession, the law decided he was a builder.

He once described it to me his way: if you buy a new home and install a 24-karat gold toilet in it, you’re the builder because you’ve contributed more than 25% of the overall value of the home.  This “legal test”, which once bore his name, the Shuman Test, seems absurd to most of us as laypeople, like arguing what the definition of  “is” is.

The wrong-doers in his case walked away scot free, the warranty corporation sided with the builder, leaving Earl and his family with years of anguish, heavy legal costs, and construction defects. In an excessively harsh punishment, he told me he’d spent a week in jail for refusing to pay Tarion’s legal fees.

He found crucial parts of his hearing missing from the official record with no credible explanation, the case law he found in a confused and contradictory state, and aggressive backroom legal strategies were used to defeat the consumer protection intention of the “Act”, the “Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act” (ONHWPA).

For 27 years of his life, he fought to expose what most of us would see as absurdities and injustices.

It’s hard to hear Earl’s story and not be shocked that this could happen in Ontario. He made a presentation to a packed media room at Queen’s Park in December, 2014, and attendees came away shaking their heads in disgust at how consumer protection legislation could go so terribly wrong. Tarion is the government-appointed regulator and licensor of builders, and Earl rightly looked to this authority for consumer protection, fairness, and justice.

I remember saying to him, it sounds like we’re living in Russia or something, how could this happen in Ontario? No, its different in Russia, he replied, they don’t tell you there it’s a democracy.

For the meeting with the journalist, Earl had painstakingly prepared a detailed timeline of events relating to his case on a large scroll the size of a coffee table, all meticulously hand-written like a Da Vinci scientific manuscript. Under all the order and detail, he was quietly seething with rage.

That’s perhaps why some people would dismiss Earl and break off contact. He was mad as h..ll, had every right to be, and wasn’t going to take it any more. His take-no-prisoners, uncompromising manner could scare away people who might have helped. Might have. But the months of research, high cost, and legal firewalls required to do a series of investigative articles into this complex, lengthy subject must have deterred most journalists, and their short-staffed, cash-strapped organizations. Go see the movie “Spotlight”, I told him, and you’ll see how tough it is for the media to take on the big bear subjects.

Sadly for most of us, being right and being able to prove you’re right in court, are two different things. This is the legal business, not the justice business, we’re told.  But despite all these roadblocks, Earl still believed in the power of the media to expose injustices and get broken systems fixed. He inspired many of us as volunteer consumer advocates, and kept his faith in justice and the press. But he got little of either.

These are important values we’d like to continue to believe in. On this 1st anniversary of Earl’s passing, I want to thank his family for their tireless and lonely work to expose what happened to them, which hopefully will one day help new home buyers.

Part of the recent review of Tarion by Justice Douglas Cunningham in March 2017, with it’s 37 recommendations for major reform, are partly due to Earl’s and his wife Krista’s work over the last 27 years.

It’s fitting that a memorial scholarship in journalism now bears his name, as opposed to the legal test which crushed and humiliated him for so many years.

Sadly, the light went out last May. We hope to hold a candle to his work, and keep believing in the power of the press to keep the big guys honest.

“Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.”   …. F. Scott Fitzgerald

– By Barbara Captijn, Consumer Advocate, Blogger

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Please read my new blog post: What does Tarion final review mean for consumers? Light at the end of the tunnel

Consumer's Reform Tarion

As I sat last week at the event where Minister MacCharles was scheduled to announce  the results of Justice Cunningham’s review of Tarion, I said to myself, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

The room was full of building and real estate executives, Tarion senior executives and board members, and ministry staff.

Many consumers have been working hard for years to get their voices heard on consumer protection issues regarding Tarion and the new home buying experience in Ontario. Tarion has operated under the same legislation for over 40 years as both building regulator and sole warranty provider, as an arms-length agency of government administering the “Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act” (ONHWPA).

This event was a chance to hear the results of the review of  Tarion by Justice Cunningham, which the government commissioned in Nov. 2015.

As the speech began, I prepared myself for the same-old, same-old “working with Tarion” mantra we’ve heard for years.

I was wrong.

The minister, the Honourable Tracy MacCharles, announced many long-awaited and much-needed reforms to Tarion, based on the judge’s report. She clearly stated that modern transparency and accountability measures are needed at Tarion; she said if the government were creating Tarion today they would have put these measures in place, and would not have combined the building regulator and sole warranty provider in one entity.

This was welcome news to consumers. Finally on these two major issues consumers have been understood and taken seriously.

And there was more.  Much more.

By this time the hot meal on the table had gone cold, and I’d been live-Tweeting to our followers (@ReformTarion), telling them change is on the way.

The minister announced the government’s plans to bring a bill to the Legislature this fall to incorporate many of Justice Cunningham’s recommendations (37 of them in total). A breath of fresh air for consumers.

The judge recommended a multi-provider, competitive model, as in now in effect in other Canadian provinces. The minister said she wouldn’t go forward with that particular step at this point, but would go forward with many of the others.

Many consumers favour choice and multiple warranty providers, as the judge recommended. Accountability and transparency can be enhanced by competition in this field.

The review has cost the taxpayer about $750,000 so far. It would seem to be value-for-money for taxpayers if the government took the judge’s recommendations, all of them, and made the changes he recommended after this year-long review and thorough consultation.

A respected and seasoned judge has reviewed the complex problems festering away for years on Tarion, and has made his decision in writing to the government. There’s no turning back now. He’s clearly said: (pg. 1, letter to the minister):  “… this framework has given rise to real and perceived conflicts of interest and has presented it (Tarion) with challenges in fulfilling its multiple roles.” 

The judge’s review put wind in the sails of our consumer advocacy work. Many ordinary consumers have donated their time, efforts, and experience to help bring about these positive new developments.  This is a political problem, as we’ve said for years, and can only be fixed by our political representatives at Queen’s Park.

Let your MPP know you support these recommendations (summarized below) for transparency and consumer protection in the most important investment of your life, a new home.

Here are some of the judge’s key recommendations:

(The final review is on the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services website (under Tarion)  http://www.ontario.ca)

Some highlights of the judge’s recommendations:

i)  New home warranty should be provided through a competitive model, multiple providers. (Recommendation #1)

ii) A new not-for-profit corporation should assume existing home enrollments and participate in the new multi-provider model (#4)

iii) A separate entity should regulate builders (#5)

iv) The regulator should be subject to accountability and transparency oversight requirements (#7)

v) The new legislation should provide more compliance and enforcement framework for the building regulator (# 11)

vi) Current Tarion “Builder Directory” should be more transparent, accessible to consumers (#6)

vii) Homeowners should have access to neutral and independent dispute resolution by a body separate from the warranty provider (#9)

viii) Homeowners must only prove “credible symptoms” of the defect, not the cause of the defect (#25)

ix) The use of experts should be clearly defined by each warranty provider; an adjudicator may also hire an expert (# 26)

x) Adjudication of disputes must be “accessible, affordable, timely” with “attention to the needs of self-represented homeowners.” (# 27)

xi) Government should have final approval of rule-making on warranty protection and builder standards for registration. (#28)

xii) An immediate review of current deposit protection rules is advised. ( #31)

xiii) All new homes, even if owner-built for personal occupation, should have warranty protection (#35)


These are only some of the 37 recommendations the judge made in his review.

Please help us take these recommendations to the next step. Many can be introduced without the need for new legislation, according to the report.

Please write or Tweet your provincial MPP, or minister MacCharles at tmaccharles.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org    Tell your Queen’s Park representatives what you think. Now is the time to make sure the consumer voice, which Justice Cunningham highlighted in his review, continues to be heard and understood in the drafting of new legislation.

If your MPP has ignored your concerns on Tarion to date, a new door has been opened now for them to listen. The current government, according to minister MacCharles, is in favour of significant change. The Liberal party has a majority in government, so it can pass new legislation more easily.

Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.”*  We need to get on this one.

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*quotation by Charles Barkley.

Link to Judge Cunningham’s final report

MacChlrs

Photo of the author (left) with minister MacCharles (right)

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Another hollow slogan, more broken promises: Tarion

Last week several consumers noticed Tarion Warranty Corporation has changed its slogan on its website and promotional materials from “Protecting Ontario’s New Home Buyers” to “Building Confidence“.

Confidence in whom, about what, for what reason? The slogan doesn’t say.

From years in the advertising business, I learned some things about effective slogans: they indicate the core of what a company does, they are simple, honest, memorable, and resonate with the main target audience. And nothing an ad agency does comes cheap.

Why does a government monopoly like Tarion need a new slogan? It has no competition, and new home buyers are forced to buy the warranty whether they like it or not; it’s mandatory.

Whichever ad agency came up with this new slogan seems to have had little contact with the main stakeholder, the consumer. New home buyers are entitled by law to a “new home free of defects in workmanship and materials.” That’s the law, the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act;  “building confidence” has nothing to do with it.

New home buyers should be entitled to get what they paid for, as in any other area of consumer protection.  Just as they’re entitled to get a properly functioning new car for the money they pay.

Is Tarion is doing its job with the public trust function it’s been given by the Ontario government? Is it protecting consumers, or protecting shoddy builders from accountability, with 8 builders and no consumer advocates on its board? Is Tarion keeping an accurate builder directory of builder defects to warn the public? Is this monopoly regulating builders by having enough deterrents to shoddy building?

Many consumers with experience with the warranty say no to all of the above. Many MPPs, journalists, and lawyers have said without transparency and accountability, no one can verify what Tarion does. Trust is good, verifying is better.

With the disappearance of the promise to “Protect new home buyers“, some consumers have quipped that Tarion has finally admitted they’re not protecting us at all. Others imagine a huddle of lawyers telling Tarion you’d better not say it if you can’t do it … liability concerns!

There was a shocking revelation in the interim review (August 2016, pg. 15) where Tarion admits it doesn’t have enough compliance tools to properly regulate builders. How can they be protecting new home buyers then? Have we been buying new homes from builders who are not properly regulated?

Perhaps that’s the reason for the new empty-headed slogan.

Does it encapsulate Tarion’s core responsibilities? Is it memorable? Does it convey valuable information? Does it resonate with consumers? No. Is it honest? It’s too vague to know.

It’s long overdue for policy-makers to take real action reforming Tarion. Time to stop believing in “consumer protection” agencies of government to self-regulate at arms-length from independent oversight.

Several years ago we noticed the Ministry removed the word “oversight” from its website description of its Tarion responsibilities. Now its “working with” them, not “overseeing” them.  Hugely different, a huge step backwards in transparency and accountability. All to the detriment of the people they’re now asking to have confidence.

The money Tarion spends on sky-high executive pay and hollow advertising slogans could have been used to fix construction defects in new homes caused by Tarion-licensed builders.  Confidence can’t be thrust upon consumers by puffy slogans. It has to be earned.

The new slogan seems to be just about as good as the Tarion warranty.

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