Living in rental housing is weird.

Someone has bought this expensive piece of property, and then they just hand you the keys for it, cash your cheques, and do maintenance - or at least, that's the best case.

Often, though, the best case doesn't happen. Things break and they don't get fixed, your landlord does things they're not supposed to, or you and they have a difference of agreement on something. When that happens, the best plan is to try and fairly work something out informally. When that doesn't work, the Ontario legal system has a special place to deal with the situation: the Landlord and Tenant Board.

In my case, my landlord and I disagreed on who was responsible for fixing some broken cabinets. We tried to work it out, but after a lot of back-and-forth we couldn't - so I applied for an order to force them to fix my cabinets, and they applied for an order to force me to pay for fixing their cabinets.

In the end, we reached a mediated settlement that both of us were happy with. While preparing for that, though, I found there wasn't much out there about the experience from the perspective of a self-represented tenant.

Here's what I learned.

Structure of the Board

The Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) is a tribunal created by the Rental Tenancies Act, charged with resolving disputes between landlords and tenants. This means that while it's not a court like on Law & Order, its judgements are real and legally binding.

Hearings are conducted by Members, who are career civil servants. Members may or may not have had legal training before they joined the LTB, but by the time they handle your case they'll know the Rental Tenancies Act inside and out, and will be experienced in how to run a session. Like judges, they can issue binding decisions and order fines. Unlike judges, they don't deal with criminal or civil matters, and they can't send you to jail or have you arrested.

You start an interaction with the LTB by filing a notice or application, which is a form asking the Board to order someone to do (or not do) something - as examples, this could be a tenant asking the Board to order their landlord to stop entering their unit, or a landlord asking the Board to order their tenant to move out. In either case, the person that filed the application is known as the applicant, and person receiving the order is the respondent.

You don't need a lawyer to appear before the LTB; especially in simpler cases, both sides representing themselves is pretty common. You can hire a lawyer, though, and if one side has one there's no obligation for the other side to have one. You can also hire a paralegal, bring a friend, or have a friend/family member who has legal training help you out (although there are some restrictions on this if you don't pay them). The important thing is that everyone involved only has one role, meaning that your friend who's sitting at the table and helping you out can't also be called as a witness.

Preparation

Preparation for a hearing consists of three main areas: understanding precedents and the law, creation of your narrative, and the collection & presentation of documents.

Precedents & the Law

In order to make a decent case, you need to know the law - so read it. At the LTB, the main governing laws are the Residential Tenancies Act and the by-laws of the community where the property is. Both of these are pretty straightforward as laws go, and can be read in an afternoon. You should also read the LTB's rules, guides and interpretations, which are like cheat-sheets for how the LTB usually handles certain parts of the law. The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario also releases great tip-sheets on specific situations.

Once you've found the relevant part of the law, you'll likely see that your situation is slightly different than the exact one covered by the text. This is OK and normal - it doesn't mean that you've fallen into some hole in the legal system. Rather, it means that your task becomes to convince the Member that while there may be a small difference, your situation is what the law is talking about, and that you should get the remedy the law says.

If there's something in the law you're really not sure of, you can call a Community Legal Clinic. They're overworked and underpaid, but can likely point you in the right direction. Some communities may have tenants' rights groups with helplines, like FMTA (for tenants in Toronto).

From watching Law & Order, you may think that the most important argument you have is based on precedents - which isn't really the case at the LTB. Since the Board isn't a court, Members don't have to follow precedents directly, and they can get offended if you keep throwing references at them. Two or three references in one place is usually fine, but beyond that you're tempting fate. It's also important to present them not as "here's a binding thing you have to follow", but rather as a very respectful "here's how some other Member thought about this situation".

Reading old decisions is great, though, for seeing how your issue has been handled in the past. Searching CanLII for keywords from the part of the law you're interested in can help you find relevant LTB decisions. I found them most useful for suggesting arguments which won't work, and for showing how the average Member will deal with definitions and terms which aren't covered in the text of the law.

At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what laws apply to your situation, what remedy those laws entitle you to, and how a few cases around them have been handled in the past. Armed with that, you're now ready to start crafting the story you'll use to explain why your interpretation is the right one.

Narrative

Your narrative is the story of what happened and led you to be at the LTB, as you see it. This is what you'll explain at the start of your hearing, and what you'll use to position and contextualize all your responses and questions. This should be informed by your understanding of the law, and will influence how you select and organize your evidence.

The important thing here is that while you should be using facts and descriptions in a way that supports your story, the facts still have to be true (from your perspective). As an example, let's say the issue is who's responsible for fixing a wall which collapsed. The landlord's narrative will likely be "the tenant did X, which caused the wall to fall down". In that case, your narrative could be "I don't know why the wall fell down, but it wasn't my fault". Both of those narratives reflect the truth as seen by each party, despite them being different.

If there are obvious things that happened which don't benefit your story, you should still include them (as the landlord certainly will). This shows to the Member that you're not trying to pull a fast one on them, and gives you the opportunity to put them into the context that they happened in, and mitigate their impact.

Lastly, while your narrative should be personal and told to promote the outcome you want, you shouldn't make it emotional or centered around a sob-story. Members see that every day; when you keep emotion out of it, you're showing that you're there for business, and want to be judged on your merits - not ignored as someone who's hoping the law will magically fix their problems.

When you set up your narrative properly, the rest of the process is about selling that narrative to the Member. If they believe yours is what happened, you win - if not, you don't.

Documents

The Board places a lot of emphasis on communication and timing, so the minute you think something may end up at the Board you should start planning for this. That means trying to keep all discussion between you and the landlord over email, and if you have to have a phone call or in-person meeting, immediately sending them a follow-up email that recounts your version of what was discussed (so you have a contemporary record of it). The goal here is to "transform" the conversation into an email so that you can refer to it easier and enter it as evidence. Ideally the landlord agrees with your read-out of the call, but even if not, it's much better than nothing.

You'll also want to prepare a summary spreadsheet of all communications, showing who initiated it, a one-line summary of what was said, and a time. The goal is to show that you're the reasonable and proactive one, and it's the landlord who's not being helpful.

Similarly, it's useful to make a timeline of important events in the process. Include things like when you moved in, when the incident took place, when any important conversations took place, and when any LTB filings happened. This will be helpful when you're debating the exact order things took place in, which can be critical.

Lastly, don't forget any photos or other relevant documents you want to refer to. Things like copies of your lease, articles about your landlord, and repair quotes. Even if they'll also be introduced by the landlord, putting them in your package means you can present them in your context, and use them to tell your narrative. If you've sent them to the landlord in advance - which you should - that's good to mention as well.

Take all these documents, create a simple cover page and table of contents with tabs, and get them bound at a copy shop. Make it look like something you'd give your CEO. This is now the package you'll give to the landlord and Member at the start of your hearing. If you can make most of this package before your hearing and mail it in to the LTB, you'll be in even better shape - as the Member will have read all your evidence without hearing the landlord's side.

The Day of the Hearing

My application was heard at the LTB's Eastern Office, in Ottawa. It's a non-descript floor of an office building. I arrived about 45 minutes before my hearing was scheduled to start, and there were a few others milling around. Nothing happened until it was 30 minutes before the scheduled start, which was when my notice had told me to show up.

At this point, three things happened:

  1. A Commissionaire came out and started taking attendance, having everyone present sign in. You're tracked by your application number, so make sure you have that handy (and in the case where you're there for several applications, you need to sign in for each separately)
  2. The organizer of the tenant duty counsel came out and reminded everyone that there was free legal advice available for tenants
  3. The organizer of the mediation service came out and reminded everyone that mediation is available, should both sides desire it

If you elect to both consult the duty counsel and do mediation, don't worry about scheduling - the staff will arrange things so that your mediation spot doesn't happen until after you're done with duty counsel, and your hearing doesn't start until after you're done with mediation. If they miss it and your application gets called early, tell the Member right off the bat and they'll reorder it to give you some time.

My first stop was to sign up for a duty counsel slot - I did this even before they made the announcement, as I saw the sign-up list on a door.

Tenant Duty Counsel

Duty counsel is a service provided by Legal Aid. In my case, it was a pair of local law students who worked out of the community legal clinic. They did a quick interview to get the facts of my case and a list of specific questions I had, and then went off to speak with their supervising lawyer.

After ten minutes they came back with some general guidance, answers to the specific questions I had asked, and three important new pieces of information:

  • If you're asking for a rent abatement because of loss of enjoyment or use of your unit, you should file a Form T2 (Application about Tenant Rights) in addition the original form where you ask for the abatement. The content may be the same, but the requests are handled under different standards depending on the form used.
  • The usual amount given for a rent abatement is 10%-20%. More is possible, but you need to show very strong evidence for it.
  • If you're asking for compensation for damage for personal belongings, the Board doesn't use strict replacement value - they depreciate the value based on how long you've had the item in question. In my case, this means that I wouldn't be likely to get much for the damage to my table as it's 15+ years old.

After I was done with duty counsel, I went to the hearing room to watch some proceedings and get a sense of how things work. On my way in, the mediation organizer stopped me and asked if I'd be interested in mediation. I said yes, and she said that she'd arrange the schedule so we had some time to chat before the application was called.

The Hearing

From speaking to others, I gather this varies a lot between Members adjudicating the hearing. The Member on my day was conversational, but very stern.

After giving both sides a preemptive lecture about how she doesn't take well to interruptions, the Member would ask the applicant to give their side of the story. Every time a document was mentioned, she would ensure that both she and the respondent were given a copy. After a few minutes she'd ask clarifying questions - all-in, each side would get about eight minutes to say their piece. This not a place for grand speeches; the Member was looking for the facts and the narrative around them, and nothing emotional or extra.

Following the applicant, the respondent would be given the chance to tell their side, with the Member asking similar questions - but this time, also to the applicant when the respondent said something that didn't match. Imagine Judge Judy, but taking place in a generic boardroom. Same self-represented feeling, same issues, same type of person leading the hearing while also questioning both sides.

While this is going on, people are coming and going from the hearing room, and the Commissionaire, mediation organizer, and duty counsel organizers are grabbing people. About halfway through the first contested application, it was my time for mediation.

Mediation

Mediation is a free and optional service offered by the LTB to help get the sides to a solution without an actual hearing. It's you, the landlord, and a neutral third-party (who works for the Board) chatting about your application. The mediator will ask questions, let both sides present their perspectives, and try to facilitate the discussion. It's a very informal discussion, with no rules of procedure.

The mediator will have read the application before starting the session, but it'll likely still start with both sides telling their narratives. From there, how it goes depends on the mediator and the positions of both sides.

In the best case, there's an agreement on how to settle the application. The mediator writes up an agreement that both sides sign, and you're done for the day. That agreement isn't an order of the Board, but it is legally binding - so if one side violates it, it's an easier process to come back to and get an order.

In cases where there isn't an overall agreement, the goal of the mediator is to get agreement on smaller things to make the actual hearing more streamlined. In this case the mediator will write out a letter the agreed points and give it to both sides and the Member, and it'll be what opens up the hearing.

If you do mediation, your goal should be to get the other side to make the arguments that they'll make in the hearing, and to see any evidence they'll be presenting. This gives you a bit more time to think about how you'll present your story, and preemptively rebut the positions they'll use. You can also change your approach if it seems like it isn't working, as the mediator isn't allowed to tell the Member about any of the discussions that took place.

In my case, mediation was successful. My mediator reminded both sides about precedents and rules, answered a few questions about what could be changed on the applications, offered perspective on which requests may not fly with the specific Member holding the hearings that day, and prodded appropriately when discussions were breaking down. I walked out of the LTB office with a signed mediation agreement that I was happy with, and was pretty close to what I could have expected to get at a hearing.

Tips

  • Always file a Form T2 (Application about Tenant Rights). At worst, it'll be rejected by the Member - but if not, it gives you a second chance to make your argument about how the landlord's action is disrupting your "reasonable enjoyment of the rental unit".
  • If all your applications are about the same core issue (or if the landlord has also filed something about your issue), see if you can get them all heard together. It'll be less of an inconvenience for you, and hearing all the arguments in one sitting makes it easier to tell the your larger story.
  • You should address the Member "Mr. / Ms. \" or "Sir/Ma'am". They're not judges, so no need for "Your Honour" or anything more formal. Most people there will be dressed in business casual, including the lawyers & paralegals.
  • Take advantage of low expectations. Most tenants who show up at the LTB are emotional and disorganized, so that's who most landlords and Members expect to deal with. If you show up as organized, rational, and polite-but-firm, you'll send a message to the landlord that you're there for business, and they they can't just make things up and walk all over you.