Available and affordable: How our online dispute resolution model served condo communities during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic and the government of Ontario’s ensuing emergency order shuttered most forms of face-to-face interaction across the province, which left many organizations scrambling to usher in new forms of service delivery. For tribunals and dispute resolution professionals in particular, this meant a widescale effort to move adjudication and mediation online.
The Condominium Authority Tribunal (CAT), which was launched in 2017, is Canada’s first fully online tribunal. As the Chair, I would like to share a few lessons to help owners and condominium communities understand how to proceed into a new era of online dispute resolution.
First, some background. The CAT is an online tribunal that currently helps owners and condo communities across Ontario resolve and decide records related disputes. We developed an online dispute resolution system (CATODR) to help people settle issues conveniently, quickly and affordably, while encouraging users to work together to build harmonious condo communities.
The first stop for owners and condo community members with a problem is Guided Steps to Common Issues, which is available on the Condominium Authority of Ontario’s (CAO) website. If they are unable to resolve their problems with that resource, they can submit a case to the CAT. The tribunal features a three-stage process of Negotiation, Mediation and Tribunal Decision. If parties cannot reach a solution amongst themselves in Negotiation, then a tribunal member can help to resolve the dispute in Mediation. If the issue remains unresolved, they can proceed to the final stage, Tribunal Decision, where an adjudicator will issue a binding decision to close the case.
We designed the CAT to be user centric. Their needs and experiences guide the design, implementation and continuous improvement of the CAT-ODR system. It also supports information and dispute prevention activities; administrative assistance for parties; and mediation and adjudication approaches.
CAT processes are almost entirely asynchronous, meaning that they do not all occur at the same time. This allows parties to participate on their own schedule. Most interactions take place in the afternoon and evening, outside of traditional work hours, which means that our users do not have to take time away from other priorities to participate in their case. We have received cases from Windsor to Ottawa, and Niagara Falls to Elliot Lake. This flexibility is key in promoting and enhancing access to justice across the entire province.
Being user-centric also means adapting to the changing circumstances of those who we serve, particularly during the uncertainty of the current pandemic. In one case, an owner was unable to access their local library computer due to COVID-19 restrictions, so we processed and resolved their case entirely over the phone. In other cases, the CAT accommodated the scheduling requests of front-line workers, and the needs of condo corporations, both of whom continued to provide their services during Ontario’s emergency order.
The CAT also works towards timely resolutions. Cases move at the speed of the parties. One time-sensitive case progressed through all three stages towards a resolution in less than a month, while another case saw a negotiation settled in as little as nine minutes.
Overall, the CAT has been able to proceed through the pandemic without a hitch, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the fully online model as an accessible, affordable and easy-to-use dispute resolution service to weather such unpredictable circumstances.
In these difficult times of social distancing and isolation, it is especially important for all who own and live in condos to adopt a mindset of promoting a positive culture and togetherness in your community.
Owners are encouraged to consult the CAO’s Guided Steps to Common Issues first, which can help resolve issues early before they escalate to disputes. Then, if you still need to file a case with the CAT, you can use the CAT’s Negotiation or Mediation stages to continue to work towards a collaborative solution.
Ian Darling is Chair of the Condominium Authority Tribunal
In our efforts to connect with owners across the province, we encourage you to share this article with other owners and members of your own condo community. They can subscribe by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org