"Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul, the blueprints of your ultimate achievements."
~ Napoleon Hill

Monday, November 5, 2012

SCC To Weigh In on Schools' Duty to Accommodate

We're going to be taking a look at a few different human rights issues over the next little while ... mainly because I seem to have collected a number of interesting tidbits on such issues.

So let's start with one of the bigger human rights stories on the legal landscape.

Some of you are no doubt familiar with an education
case out of British Columbia from a few years ago,
Moore v.British Columbia, where a student challenged
both the provincial Ministry of Education and a school board for not providing students with learning disabilities with appropriate accommodations.

From an advocate's point of view, I find this case particularly interesting for two reasons: first, the bases on which the Human Rights Tribunal found both systemic and individual discrimination on the part of both the school board and the Province and, second, the courts' reasoning in overturning that decision (why they decided that no discrimination had, in fact, occurred). And although it might sound like I've just said the same thing twice, they are two very separate issues, as you will see.

Jeffrey Moore had a severe learning disability (SLD) but the very year he was found eligible to attend an intensive program for students with severe learning disabilities, it was cut for financial reasons. The services that were subsequently offered were not comparable to what he would have received in the intensive program and his parents later placed Jeffrey in a private school for students with learning disabilities.

The father brought a discrimination claim to the BC Human Rights Tribunal against the Province (the Ministry of Education) and the school board, alleging both individual and systemic discrimination. The Tribunal found in Jeffrey's favour, finding that both the school board and the Ministry of Education had failed to accommodate his needs in the delivery of educational services.

Individual discrimination had occurred when the school board and the Ministry failed to ensure that Jeffery’s disability needs were appropriately accommodated in the school board by not providing him with sufficiently early or appropriately intensive and effective remediation.

Systemic discrimination by the school board had occurred when services were disproportionately cut to SLD students without analyzing the impact on these students or ensuring that there were sufficient alternative services in place.

Systemic discrimination by the Ministry occurred when it under-funded the actual incidence of SLD students by imposing a cap on funding High Incidence/Low Cost disabled students, when it under-funded the Board resulting in significant cuts to services to SLD students, when it focused its monitoring only on spending and fiscal concerns, and when it failed to ensure that early intervention and a range of services for SLD students was mandatory.

Unfortunately, the Ministry and the Board were successful in their judicial review application and the Court of Appeal (CA) dismissed Mr. Moore`s subsequent appeal.

Here's where it starts to get interesting - unlike the Human Rights Tribunal, which had concluded that the service being provided was “educational programs offered by the Ministry and the [school board]” (in other words, public education services offered generally to the broad public), both levels of court found that services for students with disabilities were “special education”, not general education.

Proceeding on that basis, the courts compared Jeffery with other students who received “special education” and concluded that there was no differential treatment because no student receiving “special education” had access to the services that Jeffrey was seeking for during that period of time. In other words, it would appear that as long as you offer absolutely no "appropriate services" for students with LD, all will be right with the world.

This finding turned on the fact that the BC Human Rights Code provides that a person cannot discriminate against another on the basis of disability when that person is delivering a service that is “customarily available to the public”. Thus, the question became whether students with special needs were entitled to only “special education” services without experiencing discrimination or whether they should have the right to receive general education services without experiencing discrimination. [Can you believe we're even having this conversation?]

[The majority of the CA relied on a 2004 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) that some of you might be familiar with (Auton v. British Columbia), in which the issue was whether the province's failure to fund applied behavioral therapy for autism violated the equality provisions of the Charter. In Auton, the SCC had held that a finding of discrimination under sec. 15(1) of the Charter must relate to a benefit or burden imposed by law - it cannot be based upon discrimination in the provision of services not provided under legislation as to do so is tantamount to dictating to the government what services should be provided.]*

The Moores appealed to the SCC, where the Canadian Association for Community Living (one of the intervenors in the case) argued that to find that students with disabilities were entitled to a separate and different “special education” service would be contrary both to the goals of BC’s Human Rights Code and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which promote inclusive education. CACL also argued that a finding that students with disabilities were entitled to a separate and different “special education” would perpetuate the historical exclusion and disadvantage experienced by such students.

Other questions before the SCC include the use of a comparator group analysis in human rights' duty to accommodate claims and the limits on the scope of remedies that tribunals can order. Unfortunately, we can't go into those issues today, although I will note that what group the person claiming discrimination is compared to (known as comparator group analysis) can and has made a huge difference in whether or not discrimination will be found.

The Moore case was argued in March of this year and disability advocates are anxiously awaiting the SCC's decision in this case, as it should  have a significant impact on future human rights claims. Let's just hope they get it right.

* It should be noted that there was a dissenting opinion in the CA - in fact the majority of the decision (the first 162 paragraphs) is written by the dissenting judge with the majority judgment being a mere 25 paragraphs. Although unfortunately, in this case, size really doesn't matter, anyone with a legal bent might just "enjoy" reading those first 162 paragraphs or at least find them instructive.

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