Ontario’s Coroners Act Contravenes the Human Rights Code

TORONTO – May 25, 2006 – In a decisive ruling released today, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has held that the Coroners Act contravenes Ontario’s Human Rights Code. The decision follows many years of complaints that while the deaths of persons in prison or police custody are the subject of mandatory coroners inquests, scant attention is paid to the deaths of persons who die while involuntarily detained in psychiatric facilities.

After three weeks of hearings held in June 2005 and January 2006, the Tribunal has ruled in favour of complainants Renata Braithwaite, who lost her mother, and Robert Illingworth, who lost his brother in fatal incidents that occurred in the course of involuntary detention under the Mental Health Act. The Office of the Chief Coroner had steadfastly refused to hold inquests into the deaths. The tribunal ordered that inquests be held and further ordered that the government pay damages of $5,000.00 for mental anguish to each complainant.

The Tribunal, chaired by retired Supreme Court of Canada judge the Honourable Peter Cory, rejected several arguments raised by government lawyers, including that Coroners inquests do not provide a service, as defined in the Code, to the families of a deceased person. He also rejected government arguments that persons who are involuntarily detained should be treated by the Coroner's office in the same manner as patients who choose to be in hospital and are free to leave.

The ruling does not amend the Coroners Act, which continues to provide that the Chief Coroner has discretion respecting whether to call an inquest into a death that occurs in the course of psychiatric detention. Marshall Swadron, who represented the intervenors in the hearing, Mental Health Legal Committee, Empowerment Council and the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office (PPAO), says this doesn’t matter. “The reasons are clear. All a family has to do is establish that the deceased was involuntarily detained and an inquest will be mandatory. If the Chief Coroner refuses to hold an inquest, he or she will be breaching the Human Rights Code.”

Swadron was assisted in the Tribunal hearing by PPAO counsel Lisa Romano, who served as co-counsel, and by Kelley Bryan of Swadron Associates. Renata Braithwaite was represented by Suzan Fraser and Jean Buie of Fraser Barristers. The Human Rights Commission was represented by Tony Griffin. Sara Blake, Arif Virani and Christopher Thompson represented the Chief Coroner and the Attorney General of Ontario.

For more information respecting the background of the complaints, please click here. Please click here to read the full text of the Tribunal’s reasons for decision.